Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Amber Cat

Image result for amber cat mckayThe Amber Cat
Hilary McKay
Simon and Schuster, 1995  134 pgs
Grades 3-6
Mystery

Only child, Robin, contracts chicken pox and must stay in bed to recover.  His best friend, Dan, also takes sick and joins Robin to wait out the sickness since his parents both work and no one is home to take care of him.  Eccentric next door neighbor, Sun Dance, also comes down with the dreaded disease, joins the other two invalids, and the Chicken Pox Club is born.  While convalescing, Robin's mother amuses the boys by telling tales from a summer of her childhood, when she and two family friends staying at her seaside home met a mysterious girl on the beach called Harriet.  The four became friends and had many adventures including hiding out in a secret cave, riding horses along the beach, digging for treasure, and an ill-fated raft ride.  By the end of the book both stories come together as Harriet's true identity is revealed, as is that of Robin's deceased father.

I read this book when it first came out, not knowing it was a sequel to Dog Friday.  It didn't matter that I missed the first book.  I fell in love with the rural British seaside community, their residents, and this brilliantly written, yet simple, story.  Needing a mystery for my Bookworm Club I rediscovered The Amber Cat and find that I like it as much as I did when the book came out almost twenty years ago.  McKay offers gentle humor throughout her books, which can be found in this title, even with more serious themes, such as chicken pox and ghosts.  The Amber Cat has the peaceful setting of the beach in the winter and is best read in front of a fire with a cup of tea.  The two stories are woven seamlessly and I was never confused between time periods or characters (which there are an abundance of).  It is a ghost story, but not scary, a mystery with really no clues and a heartwarming family story with the nuclear family consisting of only a single mother and son.  The plot is simple, yet exciting and the book is hard to put down.  It all comes together in a satisfying conclusion all too soon.  The type is comfortable, the margins are big and the book reads fast.  The only thing that might discourage readers is that the book feels old fashioned and is very British.  The Amber Cat is the antithesis of The Lightning Thief and may not appeal to the Xbox generation.  One reader didn't like it because kids "don't get chicken pox anymore, so it must be from the olden days".  Dreamy kids will fall into this world and not want to leave.  You have to know your reader.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Revolution

Revolution
Deborah Wiles
Scholastic, 2014  479 pgs
Grades 6-Up
Historical Fiction

The second installment in her "The Sixties Trilogy", Wiles once again offers a hybrid novel/photo-essay, this time turning from the Cuban Missile Crisis to Freedom Summer in Mississippi in 1964.  On the cusp of thirteen, Sunny's summer is filled with swimming in the pool, hanging out with friends, and the Beatles.  All of this changes when "the invaders" set up camp in her small town in Greenwood, Mississippi.  Civil Rights leaders and volunteer college students have arrived en-mass to educate the African American population and register them to vote, despite the existence of Jim Crow laws, trumped up reasons why African Americans cannot register, and resistance from local police and town's people.  Sunny and her step brother encounter a young African American boy of their own age, Raymond, and his story is interwoven with Sunny's.  We see Raymond grow from an apathetic teenager to a soldier in freedom's army, peacefully attempting admittance to "white's only" venues, eventually getting brutally beaten and then refused treatment at the local hospital.  Sunny matures from a little girl to a young lady, learning to see other people's points of view, as well as growing to except a new step family.  Sunny begins to question the way of life that she has always known and finds her inner strength to stand up for what is right.  The book winds down with the summer.  School begins again and Greenwood has settled down a bit.  Change has started and there is no going back.

Revolution is a stunning book in both content and design.  Our two parallel stories (on different shades of paper to determine who is narrating) are interspersed with emotional and original photos from the time and place, original documentation and first person accounts (again in different type-set in order to not be confused with the fiction), and relevant poetry and song lyrics from the time period.  The result is as close to a "slice of life" you can get to being there.  I did not buy this book (or its predecessor) for my library because it looks like a shelf sitter: it is too long and seemed boring.  What do kids care about the Cuban Missile Crisis and Freedom Summer?  Being from New Jersey I felt that what was happening in 1960's Mississippi is not our story,  I was so wrong.  Revolution is consuming and very readable.  It is impossible to put down once you begin and makes the reader want to know more.  It is mind-blowing that American citizen's had no rights based on skin color as recently as fifty years ago.  Wiles clearly did her research.  Original documentation is all through the book and an extensive bibliography is included.  This book is Newbery worthy.  Unfortunately, the Newbery medal cannot take into account any illustrations or photographs.  The photos really give the book a visual punch, placing the reader into the time and place.  The story is strong enough on its own to be a contender and I hope that the committee is able to see past the visuals.  The characters all experience growth throughout the summer and are faced with important choices.  We see all sides of the conflict and Wiles doesn't offer easy answers.  At the end of the book a major character is sent to the growing conflict in Vietnam and it concludes with photos and song lyrics from the war, so I think that is where the trilogy will be heading next.  I can't wait!

Monday, October 20, 2014

Seven Wonders: The Colossus Rises

Seven Wonders: The Colossus Rises
Peter Lerangis
HarperCollins, 2013  348 pgs
Grades 5-8
Fantasy/Adventure

Thirteen-year-old Jack has a strange attack at school, which lands him in the hospital.  The staff at the hospital seems strange and suspicious and Jack wishes that his traveling Dad were nearer to home.  Next, Jack finds himself being held prisoner on an uncharted island with three other kids of the same age.  Their captor, Professor Bhegad, explains that they are rare descendants of an ancient prince and have special powers--as well as a curse.  The curse is the medical condition that almost killed Jack.  It is life threatening and can only be treated under Professors Bhegad's care.  Their powers are linked to the legendary city of Atlantis and the ancient wonders of the world, only one of which (the Egyptian pyramids) still exist.  At each ancient wonder lies a Loculi, an extremely powerful and magical object.  All seven Loculi must be retrieved in order to stop the destruction of the world as we know it.  After a failed attempt to escape, the four teens get on board with the professor's plan.  They travel to Greece to locate the first Loculi found near the location of the long-gone Colossus of Rhodes, a giant statue constructed by the ancient Greeks of their sun God, Helios. All kinds of obstacles slow the teenagers down on their quest, such as legendary beasts wrecking havoc, secret mazes, tricky ciphers, and evil enemies also after the Loculi.  Our heroes eventually prevail and obtain their sought after prize, only to have a last-minute plot twist foil their plans and lead us straight to the next installment of the series, Lost in Babylon.

The Seven Wonders series has become enormously popular at my library, which has prompted me to read it.  The series is clearly cashing in on the success of the Percy Jackson books, but offers a decent alternative to those kids who have finished the Riordan books and want more of the same.  Jack is not a particularly likable or well developed character, nor are his friends, but character development is not the main motivation of the book.  The Colossus Rises is extremely plot driven and the action never stops.  I think the one character, Marco, is taken for dead at least three times.  The back-story concerning the ancient wonders and the Loculi will appeal to smart kids who enjoy details, but I found it all a bit confusing.  I found my mind starting to wander during different bits, especially when the professor explains some piece of ancient lore.  Kids (or over-read librarians) who can't quite keep the details of the plot straight will still be able to enjoy the book with its non-stop dashing about and clever dialog.  Veteran author, Lerangis has written installments in the 39 Clues series and is a master at writing adventurous fiction for young people.  The series will appeal to boys more than girls, although Lerangis threw in a female character to make the book more inclusive.  With three titles in the series already out and a four slated for a March, 2015 release, kids will have plenty to keep them busy with this series.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

I Hunt Killers

I Hunt Killers
Barry Lyga
Little Brown, 2012  359 pgs
Grades 9-Up
Suspense

Welcome to the confusing world of Jasper (Jazz) Dent, son of the most famous and notorious serial killer of our fictional times, Billy Dent.  Billy has been locked away in prison since Jazz was thirteen, but the lessons and abuse he suffered under his father are still lurking in a hazy, omnipresent way.  Now Jazz lives with his Grandmother, has a nice girlfriend, Connie, and a best friend, Howie, who suffers from hemophilia.  A new serial killer is on the loose in Jazz's small town.  He recognizes the patterns and brings his findings to the attention of the sheriff who put Billy behind bars, G. William, who has since become a personal friend.  At first G. William rejects Jazz's help and discounts his theories.  As the victims begin to pile up it becomes clear that Jazz was right and the new killer is mirroring the career of Billy.  Who better to track down a Billy impersonator than his own son?  Jazz lends his services to the investigation, including visiting Billy in the state penitentiary for the first time to try to get information from him.  Throughout the investigation we see the workings of Jazz's mind: the confusion of his past and his struggle processing the emotions of his present.  Meanwhile, a social worker is concerned about his living situation, noticing that Gramma's condition is deteriorating and is threatening Jazz with a foster home.  Throughout all his personal problems and angst, Jazz continues to hunt down the murderer.  After many close calls, dead ends, and the near loss of Howie, Jazz tracks down the new serial killer and brings him to justice, only to have a new development smack him in the face; a twist that will lead readers straight to the second book in the series.

First in the Jasper Dent series, I Hunt Killers is an edgy thriller not for the faint of heart.  It is graphically violent and descriptive in content and I would have loved it when I was in high school.  The violence all makes sense to the story and Jazz, despite his inner battles, is a good guy.  This book is the perfect transition for teen readers who are not quite ready for adult thrillers.  When I was a teenager I read Stephen King and Anne Rice because well written, suspenseful books for older teenagers were not available.  Now its a different world and Barry Lyga has found his niche in it.  The mystery aspect of the book was tight.  Plenty of suspects were introduced and the killer, although gettable, was not too obvious.  Jazz is a well developed character, which is unusual for this genre.  We see him struggling to maintain healthy relationships, all while battling violent emotions and urges stemming from his upbringing.  At first I thought that maybe Jazz was an unreliable narrator (which would have been cool) or that maybe his sheriff friend was responsible for the killings (also would have been cool), but early on those theories were dismissed as Lyga chose a more traditional route.  It felt weird where Lyga picked up Jazz's story, we never see G. William's investigation and arrest of Billy.  I felt like I was reading the second in the series and kept making sure that it is indeed the first.  Lyga has since written a prequel focusing on these past events, so I guess I was not the only one wanting more background.  My only real complaint with the book is that Jazz has had such a traumatic childhood, yet none of the concerned adults in his life insist he gets some therapy (the sheriff mentions that he sees a therapist because of the Billy Dent arrest, why wouldn't he encourage Jazz to do the same?).  This could be my "mother brain" kicking in as I was reading the book, but I just wanted to grab that boy and drag him to a therapist!  The mystery is satisfactorily solved by the end and the killer revealed.  Lyga throws in a cool surprise twist at the end of the book that will have readers racing for installment number two: Blood of My Blood, released last month.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

The 8th Continent

The 8th Continent
Matt London
Penguin, 2014  217 pgs
Grades 3-6
Science Fiction/Adventure

Wealthy siblings, Rick and Evie, travel around the world with their eccentric environmentalist/inventor father and crow-like robot tutor when not attending their exclusive Swiss private school.  This is the earth of the future, where many species of animals have become extinct and the planet is covered with garbage and entire species are vanishing.  A wild-life vigilante, Dad is constantly butting heads with the world government, Winterpole. eventually getting himself arrested and sent to the high-security "Prison at the Pole".  Rick and Evie take it upon themselves to track down Dad's former college, Doctor Evan Grant, in order to recreate a mechanism that can transport the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (a real thing!) into a livable 8th continent.  Enter the evil Nemesis, Vesuvia, who wants control of the invention to convert the 8th continent to a "new Miami" with shopping malls and bling.  Evie and Rick travel the globe in their flying tree/ship, track down Dr. Grant, and get hold of the invention.  Unfortunately, before they can make the machine work, Vesuvia arrives with a multitude of armed soldiers. Will the machine succeed in creating the 8th continent?  Will Rick and Evie overcome Vesuvia in dictating the continent's future?  Will Dad ever be released from prison?  These and other important questions will be answered as you quickly turn the pages to the book's thrilling conclusion!

First in a projected series, The 8th Continent feels in structure and format like The 39 Clues series or Spirit Animals, although it will be written exclusively by London, as opposed to various authors as in the two scholastic series.  The writing is formulaic, yet written as to create excitement and to keep kids pushing on to the end.  The action never stops and the technology is cool.  Reluctant readers, especially, will be drawn to this book.  Having both a male and female character will increase the range of the book to appeal to both sexes.  The main characters are charactertures and the villainous girl is something straight out of a comic book.  There is also a lot of violence, but it is also cartoon-like and will not scare even sensitive readers.  Readers won't care that this is not great fiction.  They will eat it up and beg for the next installment (scheduled for release February, 2015).  On the cover of the book it reads "Build It.  Run It.  Rule It." underneath the title and the publicity advertises an internet component.  I assumed that kids would be able to go on-line and create their own continent, maybe using some sort of code hidden within the book.  This was not the case.  When directed to the book's website there is a simple game that is suppose to lead you to a sneak-peek of the next installment of the series, once you complete it. After wasting twenty minutes mastering the game, no sneak-peek was revealed.  The book was officially released two weeks ago and I don't think the website has been updated as promised, which made the internet component disappointing. The 8th Continent is underlayed with educational content in the form of quizzes that the heroes are subjected to by their robot tutor and environmental messages.  It is a cautionary tale for our future, as earth is being taken over by garbage.  What a fantasy to create an 8th continent and have a "do-over".  If only we could...

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Lost and Found

Lost and Found
Andrew Clements
Atheneum, 2008  192 pgs.
Grades 4-7
Realistic Fiction

Identical twins, Jay & Ray Grayson, have always been treated as a unit.  No one can tell them apart, including their own parents.  Mom and Dad have to do an "ankle check" (one twin has a freckle on his ankle) to know who is who.  As much as they enjoy having a constant companion, it gets a bit tiresome sometimes, since neither of them have a friend of their own.  After moving to a new school and having to endure the first day alone because Ray is sick, Jay finds out what it is like to not be a twin.  He enjoys the experience and even makes a friend.  Through a glitch in the system Jay realizes that there is no record of Ray and they don't know there is a second boy.  Because of this discovery a great/horrible idea is hatched.  He convinces Ray to take turns attending school and being Jay Grayson, so that they can both experience life as an individual and not part of an identical set.  At first the experiment is liberating and then complications kick in, including a trip to the mall, talking to the other guy's crush, playing sports with different abilities, and explaining away the disappearance of a new bruise from the day before.  Beyond this, guilt sets in.  Both boys confess their secret to a different friend and the school gossip chain gets rolling.  Just when the boys are ready to kill each other and are ready to confess, a wise school nurse figures out the deception, their cover is blown, and all heck breaks loose.

Clements, a former teacher, is the master of the school story.  He understands the way school run and how kids think.  Lost and Found is the perfect example of good kids making bad choices and facing the consequences, all within a school ecosystem.  Who hasn't fantasized about being a twin?  Growing up I always envied twins, having that built in best friend to share everything with.  Lost and Found explores the realities within the twin/sibling relationship and we see first-hand what life is actually like for them.  Part of the twin fantasy is having that person go to school for you or do your unpleasant things for you.  This fantasy is also debunked.  We understand Jay and Ray's deception and experience the reasons for their bad decisions, which escalate into more bad decisions.  They are good, likable kids, who want to step out of their twindom for awhile, except the way they go about it is misguided.  Eventually they get caught and face the necessary consequences.  So, lessons are learned, a great story is enjoyed, and all is well that ends well.  From the cover and the print size of the words  I judged the book to be appropriate for my third/fourth grade book club (where I host two sets of twins and a group of triplets).  After reading the book I would put it a little older maturity wise (the boys are awkward around girls,have crushes, and skip school) making this a great book for reluctant readers, both girls and boys.  My only complaint is that although Clements was very intentional in giving Ray and Jay distinctive personalities, I still got confused by who was who.  I suspect that young readers would also have this problem, but it does not take away from the enjoyment of the book and the progression of the plot.  This is an enjoyable book that will pretty much appeal to anyone and would make a great read aloud in a classroom setting.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

What the Dickens

Image result for dickens maguireWhat the Dickens: The Story of a Rogue Tooth Fairy
Gregory Maguire
Candlewick, 2007  295 pgs.
Grades 3-6
Fantasy

Dinah, Zeke, and baby Rebecca Ruth are being looked after by Mom's young cousin, Gage, during a hurricane.  An emergency (Mom needs to get insulin for her diabetes), which is not at first revealed, has taken the parents away and into Gage's care.  To keep the kids calm during a worst of the storm over-night, Gage tells them a story from his childhood; when he met a tooth fairy, or as they like to be called, a skibberee.  The plot now goes back and forth between the harrowing night of the hurricane and the adventures of What-the-DIckens, the name Gage himself bestowed on the infant skibberee.  What-the-Dickens escapes a cat, gets adopted by a bird, extracts a tooth from a lion, and is mistaken by an old lady as the angel of death before an amazing thing happens.  He meets another Skibberee,  named Pepper, who, after initially being annoyed by him, takes pity on What-the-Dickens and brings him home to her colony.  Once at the colony What-the-Dickens meets others of his kind and learns Skiberee history.  Unfortunately, he is greeted with suspicion and asked to leave.  Pepper, now in jeopardy herself for endangering the colony by What-the-Dicken's presence, must complete an impossible mission to prove herself.  This mission leads Pepper and What-the-Dickens back to Gage, who has an important decision to make: chronic loneliness or keeping a skibberee as a pet even though they need to be free.  What-the-Dickens and Pepper's story is resolved, more or less.  The children and Gage see headlights in the distance: could it be their parents?  We never find out, but know that the children will be okay, having survived the worst of the storm and having learned to rely on their own inner strengths.

Gregory Maguire has done for the tooth fairy what he has formally done for the Wicked Witch of the West: taken the folklore behind the character and added to it.  I just read an article by Jane Yolen in The Hornbook which discusses "fakelore", changing folklore, which some critics argue against.  Yolen argues that folklore by its very nature is organic and always growing and changing.  I love that Maguire thinks about characters from our literary traditions and reworks them, breathing new life into the stories.  The Tooth Fairy is an under-explored character in our folkloric cannon.  She pops up here and there, usually as a minor character, and is the focus of several picture books.  I love that she gets her own back story at last!  What the Dickens is a classic story-within-a-story.  Maguire expertly jumps back and forth without the reader getting confused.  The Skibberee story line is believable and exciting.  Gage (and Maguire) leave the question of reality open to the reader as well as to the children listening during the hurricane.  Dinah and Zeke are fully developed and realistic characters.  They both grow during the course of the book and find true inner courage.  This book will appeal to both girls and boys equally.  It is not an easy read, even though the margins are big.  Maguire never sells out when it comes to storytelling and vocabulary.  Every word he uses is intentional.  Even though the book is for a young audience, it is written with supreme care and never talks down to the reader or is tongue-in-cheek concerning tooth fairies.  Both story lines are left a bit open, leaving the reader something to think about, but Maguire offers enough closure for the reader to be reassured that everything will be all-right.  After reading What the Dickens children will be setting up webcams in their rooms in order to catch skibberees in action when they have teeth under their pillows.