Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Fish in a Tree

Fish in a Tree
Lynda Mullaly Hunt
Penguin, 2015 267 pgs.
Grades 4-7
Realistic Fiction

Ally's sixth grade year is already a disaster.  Her kind teacher is about to go out on maternity leave.  Ally, a perpetual class misfit who has changed schools multiple times because of a military father, accidentally gives her teacher a sympathy card instead of a good wishes card, all because she can't read what the card says.  Ally finds herself in trouble again and struggles with the ridicule dished out by her classmates and getting through the school day.  Her new teacher. Mr. Daniels, is different.  Her takes the time to get to know each student and recognizes almost instantly that Ally has trouble reading, even though she has many coping mechanisms to hide this.  Mr. Daniels finally uncovers that Ally has dyslexia and works after school with her to teach her new strategies for reading.  Meanwhile, Ally reaches out to a new student named Keisha and the girls befriend fellow outcast, Albert, forming a circle of friendship.  Through having an understanding teacher, finally learning how to read, and making friends for the first time, Ally slowly starts to develop confidence.  A constant target for the classroom bully, Ally learns to stand up to her tormentor and stops giving her power.  As the year progresses Ally and her friends find their places in both the classroom and the world and learn to embrace and appreciate who they are.  As a student with dyslexia we see that although Ally is smart, she learns differently.  By book's end Ally is a different person, confident and kind, and well on her way to becoming a student.

Hunt (One for the Murphys) again explores the struggle of a young person overcoming adversity, this t;me a learning disability.  Fans of Out of My Mind, Wonder, and Counting by Sevens are the natural audience for this book.  Hunt invites us into the mind of Ally.  Through her eyes we see how frustrating every school day is for her.  She has a loving and supportive family, but her beloved grandfather recently died and her military father is currently deployed, leaving her lonely.  Ally continues to be misunderstood, yet puts one foot in front of the other and it is impossible not to root for her.  I saw the learning disability before Ally or any adults in her life saw it.  It was such a relief when Mr. Daniels comes on the scene, diagnoses dyslexia, and finally does something about it.  We see Ally begin to blossom and grow in confidence.  This would be a great classroom read aloud.  Learning differences, bullying, deployed family members, poverty, and low self-esteem are all issues delved into within this book.  Mr. Daniels is such an awesome teacher that he serves as a wonderful role model, making this a must-read for educators.  The principal, who formally only punished Ally, apologizes at the end of the book, admitting that she should have recognized her disability, showing that administrators sometimes make mistakes and its appropriate to admit them and to always treat students with respect.  Ally's friends Albert and Keisha are also fully developed characters who are interesting people, yet also struggle with issues of their own, showing kids that they are not the only one's with problems, we all have them.  Both boys and girls will enjoy this book and identify with it.  Fish in a Tree will be a natural fit in a school setting and is an enjoyable read for recreational use, making this book a recommended reading for all.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Untamed: the Wild Life of Jane Goodall

Untamed: the Wild Life of Jane Goodall
Anita Silvey
National Geographic, 2015  96 pgs.
Grades 3-6
Non-Fiction/Biography

Veteran author and Children's Literature expert, Anita Silvey presents an overview of the life and work of Jane Goodall suitable for young people. The book begins with a forward penned by the scientist herself with an invitation to children to become wildlife protectors. Silvey then digs into Goodall's childhood in World War II England tracing her life-long love of animals. Next we see Goodall following a dream to travel to Africa, where she falls in with renounced researcher Louis Leakey. Armed with only a secretarial degree and a great love and respect for wild animals, Leakey sends Goodall into the jungles of Tanzania to observe the wild chimps living in the Gombe Stream Game Reserve. Goodall accepts the challenge with enthusiasm and revolutionizes what we know about chimpanzees and the process in which they are studied. The second half of the book (as with Goodall's life) is spent following the celebrity scientist as she campaigns around the globe for animal rights and environmental protection. Finally, we see what is happening in the world today in regards to wildlife research and protection, a glimpse into some of the lives Goodall has touched, chimpanzee facts, brief biographies of some of Goodall's more notable chimp friends, a timeline, a map, further resources, sources, and a comprehensive index.

As I always say, "Everything I know about the world I have learned from reading children's books". Thanks to Silvey I now own surface knowledge of the life of Jane Goodall.  Silvey presents a thoroughly researched and highly readable account of Goodall's life and work in an age-appropriate fashion. Emphasis is placed on Goodall's childhood and inspirations for future study, which would be relevant to children. Basic facts about her personal life in adulthood are offered, but not explored.  Kids wouldn't care about this anyway. Instead, Silvey focuses on the work, incredible success stories of the abilities of some of the chimpanzees, and heroic efforts on Goodall's part to protect them. A perfect fit for children interested in nature or science, it will also appeal to the casual browser. The book reads quickly with distinct chapter breaks and remains interesting throughout. The real star of this book are the stunning photographs included on every page and the book's beautiful design. Anyone, child or adult, would pick up this book and start reading. I picked it up and, honestly, never thought I was interested in Goodall or the chimpanzees. Now I want to know more. Goodall started out with very little education at a time where women were not scientists, especially in the jungles of Africa. She followed her dreams, was fearless, and worked tirelessly, never loosing sight of what was important to her. Goodall's life is truly an inspiration and children will benefit on so many levels from checking out this book.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Appleblossom the Possom

Appleblossom the Possum
Holly Goldberg Sloan
Gary Rosen, Illustrator
Dial, 2015  274 pgs.
Grades 3-6
Animal Fantasy/Adventure

Appleblossom is born the runt of thirteen possum babies. Being Marsupials, Appleblossom and her siblings live in Mama's pouch until they are ready to face the world. Since Mama is a progressive possum, she allows each possum to chose their own names, only they must begin with the letter "A" since this is her first litter. At last the baby possums emerge from the pouch and the real life training begins.  Mama's teaching relies heavily on drama coaching (playing dead, etc,) and safety rules. Before Appleblossom is ready, Mama sets her little ones out on their own. For a while Appleblossom sticks close to brothers Amlet and Antonio, but eventually she is distracted by a "monster", who is in reality a little girl named Izzy.  Izzy is very lonely and is desperate for a pet to become her best friend. So far, relations with her dog have been less than satisfying. After a disastrous fall through the chimney Appleblossom is in Izzy's house and Izzy is determined to keep her as a pet. Some very funny scenes ensue, involving an ill-fated bottle of shampoo and a Paddington coat, until Appleblossom is ready to return to the wild.  But how to escape Izzy's house? Meanwhile, Amlet and Antonio are looking for help to rescue their lost sister. Help arrives in a very unexpected place: estranged father Big Poss. Big Poss leads the boys to the big city in search of their mother, who will help them rescue Appleblossom and save the day.

I am a big fan of Holly Goldberg Sloan  Counting by Sevens was my favorite book of 2013. Appleblossom the Possum is a very different book. I was expecting another heart-felt realistic story. Instead I got a very funny animal-fantasy adventure for a younger audience. Even though it was not what I was expecting, I thoroughly enjoyed the book. Appleblossum the Possum is a great choice for fans of the Humphrey books by Birney. Children ready for longer chapter books, but not ready for anything too challenging will be the target audience. The chapters are short, the margins wide and the print is large.  The action never stops and the book is genuinely funny. Puns abound and subtle theatrical jokes cracked me up. Big Poss is a great character, somewhat stealing the show. Even though there are a lot of Possums to keep straight, the main characters have distinct personalities and become easily identifiable. The bumbling dog Columbo provides even more comic relief and the humor and action never stop. Sweet, cartoon-like illustrations, contributed by Gary Rosen, add to the story and will help to allure readers. Though books about all kinds of animals exist for children, this is the first non-picture book I can think of featuring possums. Sloan camouflages possum facts throughout the book and I actually learned something about these creatures, who are the only marsupials in North America, and made me a bit more sympathetic to them. Maybe I won't scream when I see the guy who lives under my shed crawl out as I pull my car into the driveway at night. No, I don't think I'm that evolved yet. This title stands alone, but could easily turn into a future series following further adventures of Appleblossom and her family.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Dorothy Must Die

Dorothy Must Die
Danielle Paige
Harper Collins, 2014  464 pgs
Grades 8-Up
Fantasy/Adventure
Dorothy Must Die Series #1

Danielle Paige presents her debut novel with a continuation of The Wizard of Oz.  Amy Gumm is a teenager living in a trailer park in Kansas with her substance abusing mother.  Bullied in school with no guidance at home, life is miserable for Amy.  Then, one day, the unthinkable happens.  A tornado tears through Kansas, whisking Amy's trailer up and over to the magical land of Oz.  Only Oz isn't the fantasy land as seen in the movies.  Instead it is an ugly and barren place, filled with scared and hopeless inhabitants.  The deplorable conditions of the land have been brought about by none other than everyone's favorite heroine: Dorothy.  Dorothy returned to Oz after being transported back to Kansas and has become power-hungry and magic-mad.  She has teamed up with Glinda and they work together to strip the land of its magic.  All of Oz's inhabitant are slaves to Dorothy and must indulge her every whim.  Dorothy's friends, the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion, have also turned evil and torment the citizens of Oz in accordance with Dorothy's wishes.  After bumbling around and inadvertently causing trouble, Amy is arrested and jailed at the Emerald Palace.  All looks lost until a wicked witch appears in her cell willing to save her if only she pledges to aid in the cause to assassinate Dorothy.  Amy agrees and is magically transported to a secret place where she meets trained fighter, Nox (love interest), and the rest of the gang of rebels.  They teach Amy to fight and use magic and brief her in the ways of the land.  At last Amy is ready to fully contribute.  After an ill-fated battle with the Cowardly Lion, she is disguised and sent to the castle posing as a servant.  What follows next is a series of twists, turns, near misses and espionage, finally building to a climatic grand ball, where rebellion, narrow escapes, and assassination attempts all lead the reader straight to the next installment of the series The Wicked will Rise, which was released March, 2015.

Paige does not present merely a re-telling of The Wizard of Oz, but a fully re-worked land, gone foul with the abuse of power and magic.  Amy Gumm might be from Kansas, but she could not be more different than the original Dorothy.  She's tough, goth, and edgy.  Her companion is a rat instead of a cute little dog.  But still, she has a good heart and tries to do the right thing, even at great personal peril.  Dorothy Must Die is fresh and original.  It is not apocalyptic or feature werewolves, zombies, or vampires, but still manages to contain magical and creepy creatures and action set beyond our reality.  There are some disturbing and violent bits and may not appeal to sensitive readers thinking they are going to get the sweet, folksie magic of the original.  There is something decadent and fun seeing our favorite warm and fuzzy characters from America's most famous story gone bad and turning the world on its head.  There is also romance, but it is of a harmless nature, at least in this first installment.  Girls will be the target audience, but boys will like it too if given the chance.  Meatier than it appears at first glance, a lot of serious topics are hidden in this fantasy book, such as bullying, addiction, abuse of power, loyalty, perception of good verses evil, standing up for what is right, and it would be a great choice for book discussion.  Still, Paige never loses sight of the fun and adventure and keeps us guessing and turning pages right up to the end.  The book is a little long, but so much happens that I didn't mind.  I didn't want it to end, which it doesn't.  The adventures continue in the next installment which is conveniently already in print waiting for for me to crack into it.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Wrath & the Dawn

The Wrath & the Dawn
Renee Ahdieh
Penguin, 2015  388 pgs
Grades 9-Up
Historical Fiction/Romance

Ahdieh presents a new retelling of the ancient Persian fairy tale One Thousand and One Nights.  Kalid, the Caliph (King) of Khorasan, marries a new woman daily and orders her murder the next morning.  The beautiful Shahrzad volunteers to be the next wife in order to get close enough to the Caliph to murder him, seeking revenge for the death of her beloved cousin.  The wedding goes as planned, but the wedding night doesn't.  Shahrzad (or Shazi) entertains Kalid by telling a story, the ending of which she purposely leaves out in order for her new husband to be intrigued enough not to kill her the next morning in order hear the story's end.  Her plan works, Shazi lives through the next day (after a near miss), but her existence at the castle is an uneasy one.  She does not trust Kalid, his cousin and general Jalal, or her lady's maid and companion, who admits to being a spy.  Eventually Shazi worms her way into everyone's favor through her fearlessness and determination.  Shazi realizes that she also has feelings for her new companions, especially her emotionally distant husband, who she's pledged to kill.  Life becomes more complicated as Shazi's ex-boyfriend arrives to save her, as well as the woman Kalid was expected to marry.  Shazi and Kalid must face their demons and be honest with each other in order for their relationship to move to the next level and become a proper marriage.  They finally choose to fully commit and share a passionate night when Kalid is called away from the castle for an important battle.  It is in his absence that Shazi's loved ones make a catastrophic attempt to rescue her from who they think is a sadistic madman, wrecking havoc on the whole city in the process.  Our story ends with a cliff-hanger and will continue in the second of a projected trilogy.

I love fairy tale re-tellings and was very excited about this book.  I was a little disappointed.  There was very little "Arabian Nights" in this tale and more action-filled love story (think The Selection set in ancient Persia with a heroine who knows how to wield a sword).  There was very little of Shahrzad's actual storytelling beyond the first night or two.  It would be more fair to say that this book is perhaps inspired by One Thousand and One Nights along with its setting and not a reworking of the tale.  The plot is very Twilight/Hunger Games/Crossed, where a girl is forced into a dangerous situation, falls in love with the wrong person creating a love triangle, and must fight in order to survive.  I did like the ancient Persian setting and found Shazi feistier than the average heroine.  I also struggled with keeping the characters straight.  Beyond Shahrzad, who had a "gettable" nickname, the other character's names were unfamiliar to me and didn't stick in my head.  Also, sometimes characters were referred to by nicknames or offices, further confusing me.  There was a glossary of terms in the back, which at least contained some of the ranking titles, which helped a little, but I would have benefited from a list of characters. All of my complaints aside, teen girls will devour this book.  They will fall in love with the brooding and misunderstood Kalid and empathize with Shazi as she struggles with falling in love with her cousin's killer, all while still sorting out her feelings for her ex.  Shazi is smart, stubborn, and courageous.  She manages to turn the whole castle on its ear and make the unfeeling Caliph fall in love with her.  Teen girls will eat this up with a spoon and start clambering for the next installment.  Me?  I found it a bit contrived and then after muddling through almost four-hundred pages was left hanging, which I didn't know in advance and was not happy about.  The cover is cool, the romance is heartfelt, and the action will keep teenagers turning pages.  I predict that this book will not be a shelf sitter.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Almost Super

Almost Super
Marion Jensen
HarperCollins, 2014  251 pgs
Grades 3-6
Fantasy/Humor/Adventure

Rafter and his brother Benny are both excited and anxious.  Today, leap-year-day at 4:23 pm, the boys will both have their super powers revealed.  Rafter and Benny are part of the Bailey family: a family who's members genetically (or by marriage) inherit super abilities the first leap year after their twelfth birthday.  Finally the moment has arrived and Rafter instantly feels the change.  Unfortunately, the universe has not been kind.  Both boys have inherited duds.  Rafter is given the ability to light a match off of polyester and Benny can make his belly button pop in and out; not exactly helpful for saving the world.  This means no super-hero outfit, no fighting battles, and now they must endure indentured servitude at the family motor pool. Worse of all, it appears that their schoolmate and member of the nemesis family of super-villains, Juanita Johnson, is a super-super, all the traits rolled into one.  After a nearly destructive incident in the school media center Rafter, Benny and Juanita have a talk.  It seems that Juanita was actually given a dud as well.  She has the ability to unclog toilets with her mind .Even though the three young people are from rival families, they form an uneasy alliance to try to get their families to stop fighting each other.  It is revealed that neither side is evil and they both think that they are saving the world from the other family.  There is actually a third party involved; a whole new family with the ability to strip heroes of their powers.  Do Rafter, Benny and Juanita have traditional and useful powers after all?  Who is this new enemy?  Can they actually get their families to stop fighting and ban together for the common good?  These and other questions will be answered by the conclusion of the book.

My quest for great superhero book choices continues as I prepare for my "Every Hero has a Story" summer reading club.  This choice is a lot of fun and will be gobbled up when put in the right hands.  Savvy (Law, 2008) meets the Incredibles in this updated Hatfields/McCoys story.  Jensen writes for his audience, providing non-stop action, slapstick/potty humor, and every kid's fantasy.  Who wouldn't want to morph into a superhero at age twelve?  The jokes never stop even as the the situation looks grim and the action heats up.  The chapter names sport a funny line from within a chapter and it became a game for me to try to spot it as I was reading.  Even though Almost Famous is silly and far-fetched, it still brings home some important lessons such as what being "super" really means, family loyalty, not judging a book by its cover, and the ridiculousness of feuding and unnecessary violence.  The book is meaty enough to satisfy teachers requiring at least 200 pages for a book reports, yet has wide margins, large print, and short enough chapters to not turn off reluctant readers.  There are no illustrations, making it a step up from the "Wimpy Kid" series.  Boys are the obvious audience, but girls will like it, too.  Give Almost Super to younger children ready for a challenge or older children, who are reluctant readers.  Most plot lines are resolved by the end of this volume, but the new evil family that emerges must be battled against.  This leads the reader straight to the next installment in the series Searching for Super, which was released in January of this year.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

The Marvels

The Marvels
Brian Selznick
Scholastic, 2015  661 pgs.
Grades 5-Up
Mystery

Creative genius, Brian Selznick, ends his trilogy of fabulously illustrated/fiction hybrids with this masterpiece.  The first full half of the book is told visually in stunning pencil illustrations tracing a family's journey.  We begin in 1766 with a tragic shipwreck in which a lone boy buries his beloved brother, gets rescued, and finds himself working with other former sailors in a bustling London theater.  As an adult an abandoned baby is left for him to raise, beginning a theatrical dynasty which continues for five generations. The story abruptly ends with a devastating fire in the theater, where the youngest of the Marvels and his insane grandfather appear to be trapped.  Now the book moves ahead to 1990 and is written in prose.  Joseph is running away from his restrictive and lonely Swiss boarding school in search of a missing friend recently transported to London.  His only connection in London is an uncle who he has never met named Albert.  A new friend, Frankie, helps him to locate his uncle's house, where he is greeted less than cordially.  The house is a step back in time with no electricity, heat, or modern conveniences.  Beyond this, Uncle Albert is secretive and creepy, weird sounds and noises are often present, and Joseph thinks he has seen ghosts.  Uncle Albert is no help as to the history of the house and its former inhabitants and reluctantly lets Joseph stay and help him to caretake the establishment, which is frozen in time down to the half eaten food on the table.  After searching around for clues to the house and to the long-gone mysterious family, Joseph and Frankie are led to the theater where a picture on the ceiling of an angel seems to unlock some of the secrets.  After speaking to the theater manager and becoming more confused than ever, Joseph finally forces Uncle Albert to reveal the truth behind the family of the house, the secrets behind the haunting, and his own personal history and motivations for his uncle's strange behavior.  After the truth is disclosed Albert and Joseph become close, having shaped themselves into a true family, which they both desperately need.  Then tragedy strikes, leaving Joseph feeling more alone than ever before.  It is through this sadness that he realizes that he is the author of his own story.  He finishes the illustrated family history, finding closure to the cliff-hanging fire, and writing his own happy ending.

Whew!  Selznick ends his amazing trilogy (The Invention of Hugo Cabret and Wonderstruck) with a bang.  in my opinion he is the best illustrator for young people alive today, reminiscent of Maurice Sendak (who he acknowledges as an influence).  On top of his intricate artwork he is also a gifted writer, picking each word used in his text with care.  His books are modern fables and instant classics.  The Marvels is no exception.  Ambitious at over 600 pages, the book reads fast, as with his other works.  The illustrations are painstakingly created and one can only imagine how many hours he spent creating them.  This is not a trilogy in plot, it is a trilogy in format, playing with the concept of how we tell stories.  In The Marvels Selznick chooses to share the story of the family in wordless illustrations and the near-present reality in text.  Joseph must uncover the family secrets revealed in the illustrations at the start of the book and then he uses the same format to take control of his own life and tell his own story.  This is a complex book for mature and thoughtful young people and adults.  The plot is very involved and at times complex and a little tricky to follow.  This story does not belong solely to Joseph, but is shared by his uncle and, in part, the family next door.  All the story lines come together in a satisfying way and Selznick does not leave the reader dangling.  The ghosts of the house are explained and there are no supernatural elements, even though it feels like a magical tale.  Part Dickens, part Little Match Girl, part Gothic ghost story, this book manages to combine the history of the London theater scene, nautical history, and the early 1990's AIDS epidemic, all while offering a satisfying mystery and family tale.  The Marvels seems to be a bit more self indulgent in subject matter and bit less reader driven than his previous works, but Selznick is such a genius he is rightfully allowed to proceed in whatever direction he is led.  Themes such as the power of story telling and defining what makes a family are explored and the reader comes away with a feeling of hope and power.  As with his previous two books, it will be hard to pigeon-hole this title.  Selznick continues to push the envelope on our definition of what a book for young people is   Now that this trilogy is finished I will be very curious to see what direction he takes us to next.

Monday, June 8, 2015

The Terrible Two

The Terrible Two
Mac Barnett & Jory John
Kevin Cornell, illustrator
Abrams, 2015  217 pgs.
Grades 3-6
Humor

Get ready for laughs as veteran authors Barnett and Jory present the first installment in their new fiction/comic hybrid series.  Notorious prankster Miles must relocate to a new rural town and school.  On the first day he is greeted with the results of an ingenious prank; the entrance to the school being blocked by the bumbling principal's beloved car.  Does he have competition as the school's top prankster?  He sets off his first day on the wrong foot, being led around by school suck-up, Niles.  Niles wants to be friends, but Miles resists.  The only way to break into this new environment is to device a cunning prank.  Miles sets one up, involving a birthday party of a fictitious person, where guests must bring presents, of which Miles intends to keep.  The prank does not go as Miles has planned and a prankster rival emerges onto the playing field.  The rival eventually reveals him/herself and invites Miles to team-up.  Miles, who has always worked alone, resists and a prank war ensues.  The prank war escalates until Miles is facing expulsion from school.  Finally he gives in and a new pranking dream-team is born.  The team plans an ingenious prank involving the bumbling principal, his not-so-nice son, and some of the gazillion cows grazing throughout the town.  All's well that ends well, and readers will be anxiously awaiting the next installment to this hilarious series.

The Terrible Two is a cut above the usual humorous offerings for this age group.  More cleaver than slap-stick, I found myself laughing out-loud at certain parts.  That said, there is still enough "silly" to please even the most fickle fourth grader.  The obvious audience is the Wimpy Kid crowd and it will especially appeal to male readers, although pretty much anybody (myself included) will enjoy this book.  I had the pleasure of meeting the very funny authors at Book Expo last week.  I told them I was about half way through the book and was enjoying it very much.  They told me to stop reading cause they ran out of jokes about half way.  That was obviously a joke because the book stays hilarious to the bitter end.  The cartoon-like illustrations add to the fun and match the text perfectly.  Plot twists, great characters, jokes, and righteous redemption abound in this first series entry.  Are kids learning important life lessons? No, but who cares?  They will eat this book up with a spoon and scream for the next installment.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Belzhar

Belzhar
Meg Wolitzer
Dutton, 2014  264 pgs
Grades 9-Up
Realistic Fantasy

Jam is sent to The Wooden Barn, a New England boarding school for emotionally disturbed kids.  She has been unable to get out of bed and go to school since her British exchange student boyfriend, Reeve, tragically died.  Her parents are out of ideas and hope this last resort will help Jam "snap out of it".  Jam is scheduled for "Special Topics in English", a class that is difficult to get into and is randomly offered.  Jam is unsure why she is there but walks in the first day to be greeted by Mrs. Quenell, a veteran teacher scheduled to retire at the end of the semester.  The five students in the class are instructed that they will be studying the work of Sylvia Plath exclusively and as part of the process must write in a journal twice a week.  As Jam begins to write in her journal late one night a mysterious thing happens: she is transported to a dream-like place where she connects with Reeve.  After talking with the other students in the class, it is discovered that they all have had a similar experience.  The five students decide to ban together, share their stories, dub the dream-like place "Belzhar" (after Plath's The Bell Jar), and agree to tell no one but each other about the transporting journals.  Eventually through trial and error the teenagers learn the restrictions of the journals, start to heal, and form genuine bonds with each other.  The semester draws to a close.  What will happen when they fill up the journals?  Does Mrs. Quenell know about the transforming powers of them?  What is the true story behind Jam and Reeve?  All plot lines are satisfactorily resolved and Wolitzer ends her novel on a positive and hopeful note.

Wolitzer, more commonly known for her adult works, offers her first book for teenagers (she previously wrote an upper elementary book titled The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman).  In this book Wolitzer explores the power of books, writing, and the work of Sylvia Plath.  The emotional intensity of teenagers is the main focus of this book and the journey of the five young people, who have suffered great trauma and gradually pull themselves out on and onto the road to healing.  The back stories of the young people are slowly revealed, helping the reader to turn pages.  The last to be fully revealed is that of our heroine, who is exposed as an unreliable narrator, which is a cool and unexpected plot twist.  Wolitzer is an amazing writer and Belzhar is well constructed.  Teenagers (girls especially) will be drawn to Jam's story and will appreciate the tragic drama as it unfolds.  Jam may be an unreliable narrator, but teens will sympathize with her and will root for her quest for healing and happiness. Readers will be encouraged to delve into The Bell Jar and may even pick up some of Plath's poetry, which is an added bonus.  Young readers will appreciate that all the loose ends are tied up neatly, but not unrealistically, and I appreciate that the book is a stand-alone without two more titles to follow.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Upside-Down Magic

Upside-Down Magic
Sarah Mlynowski, Lauren Miracle, & Emily Jenkins
Scholastic, 2015
Grades 3-6, 198 pgs
Fantasy/Humor

Almost Fifth-grader Nory has a problem.  She is expected to attend her upper-level education at the prestigious Sage Academy for magic, where her father is head master and both her siblings attend.  But Nory's magic isn't "normal".  Her talent is that of a "Fluxer", the ability to transformer herself into animal form.  Only Nory doesn't transform into a simple animal.  She turns into a weird hybrid animal, which she has an impossible time controlling.  After a particularity disastrous admissions test, Nory is declined admission to Sage.  Instead Aunt Margo, an aunt she barely knows, shows up and whisks Nory away (literally--she's a "flyer") and takes Nory to her home, where Nory must attend Dunwiddle School in a special class for children with "upside-down" magic.  Nory meets a friend on the way to school named Elliott, who is a "Flare", but instead of setting things on fire, Elliott freezes them.  Their new teacher is Ms. Starr and she attempts to show the magical misfits, who include a flying boy who can't come down, a boy who can't help transforming himself into a rock and getting stuck, and a girl who terrifies animals, that "different" isn't "bad".  Nory begins to make some friends in her class, until a disastrous incident in the cafeteria alienates her new classmates.  Eventually the kids come around and welcome Nory back to the fold.  Nory and Eliiott devise a plan to escape the "misfit" class and re-enter main-stream magic.  A mysterious book appears on Nory's desk instructing her on how to contain her "good" magic in a box and push out the "wonky" magic.  Nory and Elliott practice like mad to control their wonky magic and eventually schedule a re-due with the principal to try to place out of their present class and into the mainstream.  The demonstration goes well, but is it enough to place them in the traditional class?  And do they want to be there anyway?  And who put that book on controlling the magic on Nory's desk in the first place?  All is revealed by book's end.

The powerhouse team of Mlynowski ("Whatever After" series), Lauren Myracle (too many series to mention), and Emily Jenkins (also known as E. Lockhart) create together an exciting new series of books for young people.  Much lighter and for a younger audience than Harry Potter, the novice wizards' adventures are more humorous than sinister.  The troubles Nory and her friends share with their wonky magic could easily translate to children with learning disabilities, autism, ADHD, or really anything that makes kids feel set apart from their peers in a learning environment.  The class for upside-down magic learns that there are advantages to their differences and start to embrace them instead of trying to hide them.  They also learn to not seek the approval of "haters', but instead to surround themselves with kind and accepting people, which they manage to find.  Nory's aunt is kooky, yet supportive and loving, and is a better fit for Nory as she struggles with rejection from her father.  Ms. Starr is the Mary Poppins for the upside-down kids and is a teacher that any kid would love to have in their life.  This is a story about friendship, self-acceptance, and embracing differences.  Even though most major plot lines are resolved, issues are left to explore in further installments, such as Nory's relationship with her family, and the back story of Ms. Starr.  Girls will be drawn to this book over boys, but it could be enjoyed by both genders.  The cover is irresistible and between that and the team of authors, I predict this book flying off my shelves.  I plan on ordering two copies of this title for my library and anticipate it becoming an instant best-seller.