Friday, June 20, 2014

El Deafo

Image result for el deafoEl Deafo
Cece Bell
Amulet, 2014  233 pgs
Grades 4-7
Graphic Novel

Using anthropomorphic bunnies, Bell offers her first person account of her childhood experiences in a graphic format. Because of an illness when she was four, Cece loses her hearing. She adjusts to her new life with the help of her supportive family and early experiences in a deaf program where she learns to lip read.  After a move to a new town, Cece begins life as a deaf child in a hearing world.  With the help of a Phonic Ear Cece is able to hear the teacher in school perfectly, as longs as he or she speaks into a microphone.  The large battery pack that she must wear like a harness makes her feel conspicuous and awkward.  At home and with friends, she wears a regular hearing aid and struggles to participate while reading lips and picking works out of garbled static.  Cece longs for a best friend who excepts her for who she is and harbors a secret crush on a neighborhood boy.  Finally after years of social confusion Cece embraces her "otherness" and becomes El Deafo, a true superhero.  She uses the Phonic Ear for less than ethical purposes, but through it all manages to find social acceptance and confidence at last.  An author's note at the end shares her experiences and knowledge and offers the facts behind the fiction.  The acknowledgements further set the story in a real context, as the characters are based on real people in Bell's life.

El Deafo is a fun and readable work about the author's real experiences in the tradition of Smile and Drama by Telgemeier.  It is both entertaining and heartbreaking and always real.  Kids will relate to El Deafo, whether hearing or non-hearing, and applaud Cece as she gains self confidence and maybe even apply the lesson to the "otherness" in their own lives.  I loved Cece and couldn't help cheering her on as she grows and matures.  She has kind and supportive adults in her life and, although flawed, understanding and fun friends--eventually.  The illustrations are well drawn and the panels scan well.  The book will be published in full color.  Both boys and girls will enjoy this book, although it may appeal more to girls.  The lessons are universal and important.  Every child growing up has something about them that makes them feel different.  Its important for all of us to embrace our "otherness" and turn it into a superpower instead of a negative.  I believe in the power of El Deafo and can't wait to see what else Bell has in store for us.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Spy Catchers of Maple Hill

The Spy Catchers of Maple Hill 
Megan Frazer Blakemore
Bloomsbury, 2014  306 pgs
Grades 4-6
Historical Fiction, Mystery

Amateur spy and Nancy Drew lover, Hazel, lives by the cemetery that her parents care-take in their small town in 1953.  Life is predictable, boring and lonely.  Enter new boy, Samuel, who is just as smart as Hazel, also lonely and likes to hang out in cemeteries.  Communist spy fever has reached their little town, as a union leader is being accused of being a communist and "anti-American", losing his livelihood  if he doesn't reveal the communists within the local plant.  Townsfolk are suspecting communists around every corner.  Hazel is convinced the new handyman is a communist spy based on his sullen manner and suspicious activity.  She draws Samuel into her search and they begin an investigation involving library research, stakeouts, and interviews from townspeople.  The mystery surrounding the handyman is solved, though not in the way Hazel suspected.  The real mystery is that of Samuel's history, which is also revealed by the end.   The Communists don't pan out to be the threat to the town that Hazel initially thought, discovering the real threat to be ignorance and intolerance.  Throughout the story we suffer with Hazel friendship troubles and the frustration of being misunderstood.  At books end, Hazel didn't solve the hard-boiled mystery she longed to, but she gained a new friend and grew as a person.

The Spy Catchers of Maple Hill is the third book about the Cold War for middle grades that I've read this year.  Is this a trend? Hmmmm.  Personally I think that adults who lived through the Cold War are interested in it, but kid's don't really get it.  Spies are cool and the Cold War is a period known for its spies, so maybe that's the motivation.  At any rate, the setting and the threat of Communist spies among us are driving force behind this book.  The mystery that Hazel and Samuel is investigating is a red herring for the real mystery for the reader: the story behind Samuel.  The reader will figure out pretty early on that the handyman is just a sad and lonely man.  As we read on we become increasingly curious about Samuel's history.  Luckily, Blakemore reveals all and the book ends with a feeling of closure with all the plot lines neatly sewn up.  Although they are both mysteries, Spy Catchers is much different from the author's popular offering from last year, The Water Castle and may disappoint fans of the first book. Spy Catchers is well written, has an interesting and developed main character, delivers several plot threads, and leaves the reader with moral lessons.  The 1950's setting may put off some readers, however and the book felt too long to me.  I wouldn't recommend it to reluctant readers, but devoted readers who like to fall into a book and live someone else's life for a while.  Hazel may not be the best detective, but she is a genuine person and a true friend.

Monday, June 16, 2014

The Brilliant World of Tom Gates

The Brilliant World of Tom Gates
L. Pichon
Candlewick, 2014 239 pgs
Grades 3-6

Fifth-year British school boy, Tom Gates, begins his new term with some sweeping changes.  He is moved to the front row where the teacher can keep an eye on him and he is sandwiched between his crush, Amy, and the most annoying boy in the school, Marcus.  Tom spends most of his school day daydreaming and doodling in his notebook.  After school he hangs out with his best friend and band mate from his two person band "Dogzombies".   The simple plot involves Tom and friends scoring tickets and going to see their favorite band Dude3 in concert.  Along the way Tom experiences many comical misadventures including disastrous family get-togethers, forgotten homework excuses and cafeteria and playground hi-jinks.  Throughout it all Tom never loses his quirky upbeat personality and charm.

The Brilliant World of Tom Gates is the British response to Diary of a Wimpy Kid.  The simple, humorous, yet realistic plot is generously peppered with doodles and drawings meant to be scribbled by Tom.  The book was originally published in Great Britain.  The American version still holds onto British terms and items (specifically candy),  yet is easily understood by an American audience.  I actually found Tom a bit more lovable and funnier than Greg Heffley.  My favorite part was the disastrous school picture, an episode that made me laugh out-loud.  The Brilliant World of Tom Gates is not great literature, but will be enjoyed by a wide range of young people.  Both boys and girls of all reading levels will read this book from start to finish and learn a bit about British culture (candy!) and how to torture your older sister in the process.  The book feels very contemporary and Tom is a very approachable character making readers feel right at home.  More books in the series are to follow and will be anticipated by a new American audience.  Pichon lacks the subtlety of my favorite British humorist, Roald Dahl, but any author that makes this crusty old librarian laugh is okay in my book.  Welcome to America, Tom Gates!

Monday, June 9, 2014

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown
Holly Black
Little Brown, 2013 419 pgs
Grades 9-Up

Tana wakes up from a party to find all of her friends slaughtered during the night by vampires.  The lone survivor is her ex-boyfriend, Aiden, and a boy she doesn't recognize.  The new boy turns out to be Gavriel, a mature vampire who is on the run.  The three escape and head for the nearest "Coldtown" where vampires are sent to live.  There has been a vampire epidemic.  Once people are bitten by vampires they must be vanquished to a coldtown, where they either drink human blood and turn to full-fledged vampires or suffer through the next three months until the vampire infection leaves their body.  Aiden is infected, Tana is not so sure.  Along the way to Coldtown they pick up two teenagers, Midnight and Winter, who are anxious to get into Coldtown and turn into vampires.  Eventual the travelers arrive at their destination.  Coldtown is not as glamerous and the constant internet feeds lead the public to believe.  It is gritty and dangerous.  Soon after arriving Aiden and Midnight become full-fledged vampires and Winter meets a tragic end.  Tana encounters the head vampire of Coldtown, Lucien, who has an anceint score to settle with Gavriel.  Tana, having not been initially infected, strives to stay clear of vampire bites, all while saving her younger sister who follows her to Coldtown, saving friends from danger, battling evil vampires and developing a love connection with Gavriel.  The inevitable happens and Tana gets bitten, but will she try to resist the infection or join her new love in eternity?

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown is veteran fantasy novelist's Holly Black's contribution to the vampire genre.  The book is fast paced, edgy, and fresh, despite the recent gluttony of teen vampire novels.  Tana is more Tris than Bella and the reader cannot help but applaud her courage, determination and willpower.  Black makes subtle statements about the deception of social media and its power, as well as choices young people make that seem cool but are actually stupid and dangerous.  Anyone would like this book, male or female.  Black, who is comfortable writing high-fantasy, provides a believable fantasy in a realistic setting that would appeal to readers who aren't big fans of the genre.  The book is long, yet reads fast.  The plot is brisk and offers twists and turns along the way.  Key characters are killed off without fanfare, which causes the reader to hold their breath waiting to see who's next.  Protecting the younger sister feels a little "Hunger Games", but with teen readers a younger sibling would be the most precious connection, the the connection is forgivable.  A sequel is hinted at and we are led to believe that Tana and Gavriel will ban together to stop the spread of new vampires.  A  lot of fun and worth the time invested.  A perfect beach book for those who like their romance with a twist of supernatural gore.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

After Iris

After Iris
Natasha Farrant
Penguin, 2013 260 pgs
Grades 5-8
Realistic Fiction

Twelve-year-old Bluebell (Blue) Gatsby hides behind her video camera, recording her family and life around her as a way of coping since twin sister, Iris, died in a tragic accident three years prior.  Her London family members are all still reacting to Iris's death in different ways.  Her teenage sister is acting out, her mother takes on a new job sending her abroad most of the time, dad becomes a work-a-holic retreating to the college town he works from, and her two younger siblings demand much needed attention.  Help comes in the form of a male Bosnian au pair named Zoran, who has family sadness of his own.  A first crush on the boy next door leads to heartbreak, as he starts dating Blue's teen sister.  Blue's isolation comes to a head and then she falls back into friendship with her best friend pre-Iris's death, who she'd been avoiding.  Next comes a new friendship and hobby with a skateboarding boy from her class, leaving the reader with a hint of romance to come.  The family unit still looks hopeless, until through Zoran, Grandma, and a desperate plot of the younger sibs, they starts to heal and pull together.

After Iris has been sitting by my bed for a year.  I have been putting it off because I'm tired of the gluttony of books from the past couple of years for young people dealing with the loss of a loved one.  The book had great reviews and, being a bit of an anglophile, I finally went for it.  Once I started the book, it was impossible to put down.  Yes, Blue is a very sad character and lots of bad stuff happens to this family.  There were many times I wanted to jump into the pages of the book and shake the mother demanding that she start paying attention to her living children and start family therapy.  That said, there was humor to the book, a moving plot, and surprises.  I love it when a book surprises me.  All the characters were well developed, flawed and lovable.  The family was so broken I really felt that the situation was hopeless.  In the last ten pages Farrant "fixes" everything and all ends functional and happy.  This is a bit too tidy and unrealistic, although the ending will be appreciated by young readers who like things neatly tied up.  I do like that the family begins to heal when Zoran plays the piano, emphasizing the healing power of music.  This book will appeal to girls more than boys.  Although its British, the plot points are universal and those new to British culture will not get tripped up.  Even with its serious subject matter, After Iris is great fun.  It may encourage young people to pick up a video camera to start recording a video diary of their own.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Real Boy

The Real Boy
Anne Ursu
HarperCollins, 2013 343 pgs
Grades 4-7
Histroical Fiction

Oscar is the hand (or servant) to a magical apothecary in an isolated village in medieval, fairy tale times.  He is often at the mercy of the nasty apprentice who also resides at the residence and lacks confidence and companionship, having only his cats to keep him company.  Things start moving quickly, as the magician leaves for a journey and the apprentice is brutally killed by a beast, leaving Oscar in charge.  The shop is filled with demanding patrons and Oscar is helped by a kind apprentice to the town healer named Callie.  Callie has problems of her own.  Her mistress is also away, leaving her with a city full of children with mysterious and serious aliments.  Oscar and Callie work together to determine the cause of the children's aliments, the power behind the ferocious beast, and the secret behind the missing wizard trees in the forest.  All comes together in the end leaving Oscar with a new-found confidence, a potential career, and his first friend.

The Real Boy is a quiet, atmospheric mystery/fantasy.  The writing is tight and consistent. Oscar shows plenty of character growth as the book unfolds and we root for him as his confidence in himself manifests.  The premise is interesting and the thought of "wizard trees" and "magical children"  intrigues me.  The beast was cool, although I would have liked to see more of him.  There are plot twists and turns that will keep the reader turning pages, but yet the book felt overly long.  Both boys and girls would enjoy this book, but I would not recommend it to reluctant readers.  It is too long and quiet for the average young reader.  It is recommended to fantasy loving, patient readers who are longing to fall into a magical land.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Will Sparrow's Road

Will Sparrow's Road
Karen Cushman
Clarion, 2012 208 pgs
Grades 4-7
Historical Fiction

Twelve-year-old Will Sparrows runs away from a cruel apprenticeship and drunken father and starts life anew.  He vows to live by his wits and trust no one.  Life proves dangerous and hunger-filled in Elizabethan England, until he happens upon a fair.  After meeting such characters as a magician and a trained pig with a jolly owner, Will discovers an exhibit of "Oddities and Prodigies" filled with unseen wonders such as a monstrous girl with the face and hair of a cat and a baby mermaid in a bottle.  Tired of a life of stealing and starving, Will joins the band of misfits and takes on gainful employment with the troop.  At first put off by the cat-girl and gruff dwarf doorman Will eventually finds friendship with the two co-workers and learns to trust them.  Contrarily, he discovers the unscrupulous nature of the owner of the show and plots with his new friends (including a blind juggler) how to break free.

I have been a long time fan of Karen Cushman and have been trying to get around to reading this book for two years.  This is her first offering with a male protagonist and is aimed at a younger age group than she usually writes for.  I personally love the Elizabethan setting, which is not often seen in children's fiction.  Readers are exposed to the grittiness, danger, and discrimination of the times.  Will is scrappy, funny, naive, and a great friend, despite his desire to not connect to anyone ever again.  He has a great voice and It is fun to experience the times through his eyes.  The traveling fair lifestyle is unique and unusual for the genre.  All of the characters brought out at the fair are eccentric and colorful and make for an interesting read.  The realities of the treatment of people with physicals abnormalities is shocking compared to the 21st century sensibilities of accepting those who are different.  Will, though ignorant and superstitions, overcomes his initial fears and prejudices and develops true feelings for the both cat girl and the dwarf.  Although the book is well written and would be enjoyed by young people, once they crack into it, it will have a hard time finding an audience.  Elizabethan England is not a topic kids gravitate to.And I kinda-sorta hate the cover.  Will looks a bit "hobbit-like".  I think it was the cover that kept me procrastinate reading the book.  Once I finally picked it up, I fell right into it, but I'm not sure that a child will get that far.  That said, give it to smart readers who enjoyed Avi's Crispin books or Blackwood's Shakespeare series.  Warning: Be prepared to want to run to the Renaissance Faire and tear into a turkey leg!