Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Great American Dust Bowl

The Great American Dust Bowl
Don Brown
Houghton Mifflin, 2013 80 pgs
Grades 3-Up
Graphic Non-Fiction

Veteran illustrator, Don Brown, offers a historical account of the events leading up to and during the Great Dust Bowl of the Great Depression in a graphic format. After a dramatic introduction, the comic-like book goes back in time to the evolution of the Great Plains. From there he traces its earliest inhabitants and, eventually, the settling of the pioneers. We next see how the early farmers fully cleared the land and overworked the soil, which, combining with drought, brought on the severe dust storms of the 1930's. Brown visually and with concisely poetic text describes life during this place and time and its effects on its inhabitants. First person accounts are included in the text and the reader feels as if they are there experiencing it for themselves. Finally, we see how the country manages to heal the land and bring it back to a healthy state. A bibliography and source notes are included at the end of the volume, as well as an authentic photo from the time and a photo of a dust storm from the present day.

Non-fiction published in a graphic format is not a new concept, but it is one gathering attention and resulting in more informational books published in this format. Publishers are competing with video games, smart boards, and a constant barrage of images clambering for the attention of today's generation of young people. Kids prefer their information in sound bites, preferably with visual images. History (and other informational topics) camouflaged as comic books are a great way to educate today's young people in a way that they willingly participate in. The Great American Dust Bowl is beautifully designed and illustrated, yet it is carefully written and historically accurate. It is chockful of facts and remains fun to read. Enough information is included in the book that it will be useful for reports. It can be read in one sitting and will be of interest to browsers. Parents will like it too! Brown uses a pallet of earth browns and yellows reflecting the mood of the setting. The panels scan easily and the book is well crafted for a long shelf life. Brown has a new graphic history book titled Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans, which looks equally stunning, to be released on August 4.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Loony Experiment

The Looney Experiment
Luke Reynolds
Blink/Zondervan, 2015  178 pgs
Grades 5-8
Realistic Fiction

Seventh grade life is not easy for Atticus. He has no confidence and is often targeted by the class bully, Danny. He can't speak in class and often spends hours at a time lost in his imagination. Danny's father is his baseball coach and he finds practices and games torture. He only participates in order to impress his father, who ends up leaving the family, resulting in further negative feelings of inadequacy. Enter long term substitute teacher Mr. Looney. Mr. Looney, a veteran teacher, has unorthodox methods of teaching unlike any teacher Atticus has come in contact with. He has the class tribal dancing and doing all kinds of creative activities, but no homework. Mr. Looney offers Atticus his signed copy of To Kill a Mockingbird, featuring his namesake, and he comes early to class to read and hang-out with his new mentor, finally finding peace and safety in school. Bully, Danny, is not happy with the loss of control in the classroom. His mother, the school board president, calls Mr. Looney to a conference with the principal. During the meeting Danny severely beats-up Atticus and destroys the precious copy of the famous book. All seems lost as Mr. Looney is put on probation and faces criminal charges for trumped up abuse as reported by Danny. Atticus must channel lawyer Atticus Finch and find his confidence somewhere deep inside himself to speak in front of the school board and be true to his conscious.

First time author and seventh grade teacher, Luke Reynolds, gives us a sneak-peek into the hopes, fears, and priorities of a struggling twelve-year-old. We see the process of Atticus gaining confidence and finding his place in the world through the help of a trusted teacher. We also see the impact a teacher can make in a young person's life and how important it is for us adults to pay attention to our charges and their needs. Reynolds is not afraid to tackle difficult issues such as bullying, divorce. isolation, and making the right decision, even if it scares you. Danny is the quintessential bully. Reynolds does not shirk away from the hatred, misery and abuse inflicted by Danny, but does offer the reader insight into his motivations (abusive father). This book is currently very timely as this summer's release of Go Set a Watchman has the the world re-reading To Kill a Mockingbird. Harper Lee is all over the news and to have a signed copy of her classic as the focal point of this story makes the book relevant and current. It is interesting that at the beginning of the book much happens within Atticus' imagination and as the book progresses and he slowly gains confidence Atticus comes out of his head and into reality. The school board scene when Mr. Looney is on trial could have been flashier, but it was realistic and propelled Atticus out of his comfort zone to do the right thing in a believable fashion. All does not end perfectly, but positively and Atticus gets the girl, which is a nice bonus. A short book that certainly packs a wallop, it would be a great choice for a classroom setting and will be enjoyed by most readers.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

All the Bright Places

All the Bright Places
Jennifer Niven
Knopf, 2015  388 pgs
Grades 9-Up
Realistic Fiction

Alternating points of view tell the stories of high school seniors Theodore Finch and Violet Markey. Our book opens with both young people on the roof of the school ready to jump. School weirdo, Finch, talks popular girl, Violet, off the roof and to safety, giving her credit for saving him to protect her reputation. Violet lost her sister the year before in a car accident and is still recovering. Reluctantly she strikes up a friendship with Finch, much to the objections of her popular friends and heart-throb boyfriend. Violet and Finch become partners for a history project, exploring unknown and interesting attractions in their home state of Indiana. Through their adventures Finch manages to lure Violet back into a car for the first time since her sister's accident and she slowly starts to heal. Friendship turns to romance, much to the shock and disapproval of Violet's popular friends. Suddenly, creative and brilliant Finch seems to go over the edge from eccentric to disturbed. He moves into his closet, only to finally escape his house all together. Not knowing where Finch is, Violet tries to elicit his dysfunction family for help locating him. Her supportive parents try to help, even though they disapprove of the relationship, to no avail. Finally, Violet's worst fears are realized as she eventually tracks down Finch. Violet decides to complete the previously planned Indiana adventures in order to find healing, closure, and peace.

I picked this book up sight unseen because it is currently on the best sellers list for books for young people and has been for a few months. I no sooner started reading when I realized it was more "Dead Girl Fiction". UGGG! Am I the only person in the world tiring of Dead Girl Fiction? Apparently, because its still selling like hotcakes. While complaining about this to my fifteen year-old daughter, she informed me that she just read a great book that I would like: Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl. And then she said, "Oh, no, wait...", as she realized it was quite obviously, more dead girl fiction. All the Bright Places is a double whammy in that it contains not one, by two deaths. I actually loved the first half of the book. Once the young people got off the roof they made a connection, found some healing, and a sweet romance blossomed. Reading this book brought me back to my teen years and falling love for the first time (with the school weirdo, much to the objection of my friends). And then, just as Niven had me hooked, Theodore Finch takes a downward spiral, as his bipolar condition sends him to a very dark place. Niven has experienced first-hand the loss of a boyfriend to suicide and shares the experience honestly and vividly. After dealing with the death of her sister and being unable to cope, I thought that Violet handled the death of Finch a little too smoothly, but I was grateful for the hopeful ending and young readers will be relieved as well. Niven offers information at the end of the book for teenagers dealing with the same issues as the characters within the story. Teenage suicide is a growing reality for American teens and Niven's book supplies information and hope for those struggling with serious problems common to young people such as bullying, mental illness, grieving, and suicide.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Goodbye Stranger

Goodbye Stranger
Rebecca Stead
Random House, 2015  287 pgs
Grades 5-8
Realistic Fiction

Alternating chapters tell the stories of seventh-grader Bridge, her new friend Sherm (told in letters to his estranged grandfather), and an unknown teenager who is skipping school for the day and on the run. All three stories overlap, finally coming together by book's end and the identity of the teenager is revealed. Bridge was in a terrible accident when she was younger, almost dying, and now feels different because of it. She starts off her school year wearing cat-ears and they become a security blanket for her as she navigates changing dynamics between her friends and classmates. A chance encounter with Sherm in class leads to both of them working together on the school's drama club's tech crew and, eventually, a friendship slowly develops into innocent romance. Bridge's friend Emily also cultivates a friendship with an eight-grade boy and they begin sending pictures of body parts to each other, at first innocent and then escalating, until it becomes public knowledge and a school scandal. Bridge and other friend Tab help Emily navigate these troubled waters and find a solution to the poor choices. Our mystery teen's story takes place on Valentine's Day, where she is on the run refusing to go to school, eventually hiding out at the coffee shop that Bridge's family owns. There she gets advise from a young Barista, who Bridge's brother has a crush on, and finally finds the courage to face her problems. Bridge and Sherm's plots build to a climax on Valentine's Day and finally connect with the third narrator, bringing the book to a well-wrapped conclusion.

I am a big fan of Rebecca Stead and have read all three of her earlier books for young people. As previously stated in my blog, I am a sucker for books set in New York City, where Stead resides, and this book as well as her more recent two have been set here. This book is lighter than Stead's previous offerings and seems to be for a slightly older audience. The multiple points of view and setting make it a little reminiscent of Wonder, although having one point of view set in the future waiting for the other characters to catch up adds a dimension to the story not often seen in children's literature. The multiple points of view may be confusing to some readers, but add depth and a slight air of mystery for those willing to stick with it. The plot is simplistic and visits conflicts age appropriate to today's young people (no time travel here). I appreciate the "sexting" story line, which is very prevalent and dangerous in the lives of today's socially high-tech young people. Sherm is estranged from his grandfather because of his choosing to divorce his grandmother and moving away from the family home. This is also unusual for children's books, but is a real disturbance in the security of the lives of the young. Stead touches on many themes including sexting, friendship, bullying, divorce, loyalty, problem solving, and handles it all without being preachy or loosing the integrity of the plot. All of our characters have strong family unity, including those families broken by divorce, with supportive parents and healthy sibling relationships. Goodbye Stranger offers a slice of life from today's New York City teens and tweens and provides both valuable lessons and good entertainment.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Glory O'Brien's History of the Future

Glory O'Brien's History of the Future
A.S. King
Little Brown, 2014  307 pgs
Grades 9-Up
Science Fiction

Veteran author of teen fiction, A.S. King, presents a pivotal week in the life of Glory O'Brien: the week she graduates from high school and drinks a bat. Glory lives with her father in the shadow of her famous and deceased photographer mother. Both have put their lives on autopilot since Mom's suicide when Glory was four. Now, Glory feels like an observer in her own life. She hides behind a camera at school and makes no meaningful connections with other humans. The one exception is her best friend Ellie, who is home-schooled and resides on the hippie commune across the street. Out of boredom Glory and Ellie drink the ashy remains of a dead bat mixed with warm beer. The next day both girls wake up differently: they can see people's past and future just by looking at them. Ellie sees harmless things, like ingrown toenails and strange fetishes. Glory on the other hand sees important things, specifically transmissions of the second American Civil War that will happen in her lifetime. The war will come from a place of sexism and will result in refuges living in trees and women being practically slaves to men. As Glory's week progresses she sees more glimpses into the war and, eventually, her place in it. During this time she also processes the death of her mother, the sad life of her father, her one-sided relationship with Ellie, and who she is and how to proceed with her life. Both Glory and Ellie's lives change significantly from the experience and a huge shake down occurs by the end of the book, leaving Glory to pick up her life and move forward by book's end.


I would love to know where A.S. King gets her ideas. Her first book The Dust of 100 Dogs I first read when it came out in 2009 and it still haunts me. Her books are edgy, original, and plot driven, all while offering meaning and substance. Glory O'Brien is no exception. The concept of drinking a bat is so off the wall and intriguing (I totally would have done that as a teenager if given the opportunity). The bat is significant because Glory thinks she is going bat s*** crazy. Is she? The reader isn't sure until we see that Ellie has had a similar experience, although a much more superficial one, as mirroring her personality. Being a photographer, King uses photographic imagery to relay Glory's experiences. Themes such as feminism, grief, suicide, teen sexuality, fitting in, self-discovery, and empathy are all prevalent in this novel. Glory learns to see the whole outside of her self-inflicted bubble and finds the courage to move ahead with her life. An artist like her mother, she discovers that she is not like her mother in crucial ways and lets go of baggage that has been weighing her down. Always an outsider, by books end Glory realizes that it was self-imposed and that she is accepted by her peers more than she thinks. King clearly has a feminist agenda in this book, but it is not preachy or overwhelming to the plot, more of a cautionary theme. Because of the impending Civil War, this book will appeal to the apocalyptic Hunger Games readers. It will also appeal to pretty much anyone who enjoys a great story with a slightly weird plot.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Odysseus in the Serpent Maze

Odysseus in the Serpent Maze
Jane Yolen & Robert Harris
HarperCollins 2001, 248 pgs
Grades 3-6
Mythology/Fantasy/Adventure

The first in Yolen and Harris' mythology based "Young Heroes" series the authors offer an account of the early adventures of Odysseus. Odysseus longs for adventure and battle. He and his companion Mentor attempt to kill a wild boar leaving them both injured for their troubles. Young Odysseus' grandfather sends the boys on a boat back home to Ithaca, where the real adventure begins. First the boys are capsized in a storm, then they are rescues by pirates, where they meet the beautiful Helen of Troy and her trusty companion Penelope. After escape from the pirates the group of young people have more hair-raising adventures involving a satyr, further misadventures at sea, and help from unexpected places. Eventually they discover a ghost ship, which leads them to a secret workshop belonging to a former toy maker. The workshop is a place of wonders and seems to be made of magic, but is actually well conceived and designed mechanical devices. Eventually it is discovered that they are on the island of Crete. The king of the island nation arrests the boys, holds Helen for ransom, and throws Penelope into the dreaded labyrinth as a sacrifice for the beast that lurks within. Odysseus must escape prison, find Penelope in the labyrinth, kill the beast, and break the curse. He and his team work together to do just that, all while making new friends along the way and figuring out how to return to their homes.

Part mythology and part history of ancient Greece, Yolen and Harris pen a well-constructed and solid adventure story for young people. A perfect choice for the child who has finished the Percy Jackson series and is looking for what to read next, this is a classic mythological tale without the modern touches Riordan throws in. Odysseus is brave, smart, and loyal. He and his companions boldly plow ahead to save their lives and others as they solve the puzzle of the labyrinth, battle mother nature, and fight evil characters, both monster and human. The action never stops and the plot offers many twist and turns. Characters seem to disappear and then reappear later in the story, adding to the interesting plot. Mythological beasts abound, both good and bad, adding to the fun. Although Odysseus is the true hero of the story, his companions also play a part. The female characters in the book are brave and contribute to the dangerous situations, making this book accessible to both boys and girls. The vocabulary is rich and the ancient Greek names can be difficult to read, making this a natural choice for smart kids who like a bit of an meaty story to sink into. The fast moving plot will attract reluctant readers and possibly encourage them to read something a bit more challenging, while having fun doing it. Yolen and Harris add an afterwards at the end putting the story within its historical context and linking it with Odysseus' further adventures in The Odyssey and The Iliad. A classic tale of good verses evil, this book will have a ready made audience and will appeal to a wide range of readers.