Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Great New Graphic Novels for Girls

Everyone knows that boys love comics. Publishers are finally figuring out that girls do too! I remember bouncing along in my mother's minivan reading old Superman comics from a box that she picked up for my brother at a yard sale. I loved them more than he did. Superhero comics have traditionally been aimed at boys. This summer our reading club theme was "Every Hero has a Story" and all the kids in my library became crazy for comics. Unfortunately, there was very little to put in the hands of young women. This is changing as the industry is publishing more and more titles directed at this demographic. With a Newbery honor awarded to Cece Bell for El Deafo and the best-selling success of Raina Telgemeier, we are presently experiencing a Renaissance in graphic novels for girls.There are many new and exciting series and stand-alone graphic novels specifically aimed at young women (ages 8-12) recently published. What follows are some of my favorite.

Sunny Side Up
Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm
Scholastic, 2015
The success of Raina Telgemeier has spurred many semi-autobiographical graphic novels for girls, which we can't keep on the shelf. The power team behind Babymouse (a series I have been handing comic-loving girls to read for years) has created a very powerful work. A young girl must go to Florida to stay with her grandfather in his retirement community, while her parents help her teen brother deal with his addiction in the summer of 1976. I personally related to this book and was deeply moved by it. I was the same age of the character and it felt like the story of my childhood, which is why I felt so strongly about the book. To see if it resounds with young people of today I asked two of my super readers if they could relate to the story. Both loved it and one didn't realize it was set in the past. The themes of addiction, guilt, relating to different generations, and loneliness are universal. I particularly love how the main character discovers comics, which get her through a tough time, and spurs Wonder Woman because she runs around in her underwear. Amen!

Roller Girl
Victoria Jamieson
Dial, 2015
Another semi-autobiographical novel, Jamieson traces a young girl's journey to success in roller derby. Atrid and her best friend begin to drift apart the summer before seventh grade. Astrid discovers Roller Derby and attends a summer camp to learn the skills involved. It is harder than she thought it would be and almost gives up several times, but perseveres. By the end Astrid has gained confidence, skills, and new friends, This is an empowering story encouraging girls to persevere and find the courage to seek a place for themselves beyond the traditional dance class. Astrid is a feisty character who marches to the beat of her own drummer, hopefully encouraging other young women to do the same.

Princeless: the Pirate Princess
Whitley, Higgins, and Brandt
Action Lab, 2015
Pirate princess, Raven, is rescued from a tower in which she was trapped by her jealous brothers by Adrienne, an authentic princess, and her companion Bedelia. No helpless maiden is Raven. She has been trained by her father the pirate king and is an expert with a sword. It is her quest to steal a ship and get revenge on her brothers and is not afraid to betray Adrienne to achieve her goal. The action never stops in this adventure, which is filled with fighting, narrow escapes, and plot twists. The warriors travel by flying dragon, which is very cool. Best of all, they wear practical, yet stylish clothing. No underwear here. These warrior women can fight their own battles, are smart as whips, tough as nails, yet preserve their feminine side and remain women. What young girl wouldn't yearn to travel around with this crew?

Lumberjanes: Beware the Kitten Holy
Stevenson, Ellis, Watters, & Allen
Boom!, 2015
I was fortunate enough to hear the team behind the Lumberjanes speak at NYC Comic Con this month and they are as cool in person as their comic is to read. The story follows five young camper friends as they navigate through the Lumberjanes handbook, attempting to earn badges. Many adventures and misadventures ensue including trouble with their councilor, a near-death experience over a waterfall, discovery of a secret tunnel, a run-in with a group of Yetis, and an encounter with the strange group of neighboring camping boys. The action and humor never stop. Below the surface, the real messages are of friendship, girl power,and acceptance. After reading this book you will long for the experience of summer camp. More installments are expected in the near future.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Frank Einstein and the Antimatter Motor

Frank Einstein and the Antimatter Motor
Jon Scieszka
Abrams, 2014  189 pgs
Grades 2-5

Amateur inventor and child genius, Frank Einstein, works with his best friend Watson to win the Midville Science Prize, the award being enough money to save his beloved grandfather and fellow inventor's fix-it shop. Quite by accident the boys create two real working and thinking robots named Klink and Klank, who have a fondness for puns and knock-knock jokes. The team invents an antimatter machine able to create a great amount of energy from a drop of water. Frank and Watson do not submit the robots or the machine as their entry in the contest. They chose to present entries of which they have created themselves. Watson has invented peanut-butter bubblegum and Frank a flying bike. Frank's rival, dastardly T. Edison will stop at nothing to win the big prize and is secretly spying on the team, along with his signing chimp friend, Mr. Chimp. The morning of the contest brings a terrible surprise: Klink and Klank are missing. But, there is no time to spend looking for the missing robot friends. After a hair-raising trek to the contest, the boys are disappointed to discover that T. Edison has already been awarded the prize for his antimatter machine--which he stole from them. Frank and Watson must now get their hands back on the machine and away from Edison, find their robot buddies, and save Grandpa's shop.

Scieszka, a former elementary school teacher, knows what kids like. His books are consistently funny, child friendly, irreverent, and, (surprise!) deceptively educational. Frank Einstein is like Captain Underpants gone scientific. It has a straightforward and adventurous plot with heroes and villains. The text is very funny and groan-able jokes and puns abound (even the boy's names are puns). The book itself is cleverly designed and contains a generous amount of cartoon-like illustrations in black, red, and white. Diagrams, graphs, and excerpts from Frank's notebook add to the authenticity of the story. The science agenda is very thinly veiled and the plot is merely an entertaining convenience to the learning. Science minded kids won't care. Even kids who don't like science will gobble up this book and learn something in spite of themselves. Mr. Chimp communicates in sign language and whenever he talks we see the signs. The end contains Mr. Chimp's (American Sign Language) alphabet, adding a further layer to the book. Scieszka is passionate about trying to appeal to boys and encouraging them to get them out of the video games and into the books. Boys will especially devour this one, and girls will like it too. First in a series, kids will have somewhere to go once they finish. With STEM/STEAM being such a huge emphasis right now in school curriculum (and library collections and programming) this book will find a place in all elementary classroom and public libraries.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Trouble is a Friend of Mine

Trouble is a Friend of Mine
Stephanie Tromly
Penguin, 2015  337 pgs
Grades 9-Up

Zoe moves from New York City to a small town in upstate New York after her parents divorce. She is living with her mom, but is still very influenced by her father, who is campaigning to have her attend a posh private school in the city. Zoe is befriended by a strange boy named Digby, who wears ill-fitting suits, is too smart for his own good and is constantly hungry. Through Digby Zoe also meets football hunk Henry with whom she becomes instantly smitten. Henry's cheerleader girlfriend Sloane finds Zoe to be a threat and lavishes her with mean girl behavior. Digby is an amateur detective and he recruits Zoe to help him locate the whereabouts of a missing teenager named Marina. Digby is obsessed with finding Marina because he thinks the case is linked to a similar disappearance of his younger sister ten years prior. Henry is also recruited and the three friends search for clues, break laws for the good of the case, and get in lots of trouble along the way. Many suspects emerge such as a sleazy gynecologist who secretly films his patients, the school bully, and a weird cult of seemingly Amish people who live across the street from Zoe. Meanwhile, Mom has started dating and the identity of the new suitor remains unknown, creating a bonus mystery. The night of the big school dance takes the case (and the book) to its climax. A night of adventures and misadventures leads our super sleuths to the missing teenager, as well as the identity of Mom's new beau. The mysteries surrounding Digby's constant hunger and lifestyle choices are also revealed, as is Digby's feelings for Zoe, which are confusing to her throughout the book. The whereabouts of Digby's missing sister remains a mystery, perhaps leading us to a future sequel.

I spent the past two months reading an adult mystery that was well reviewed and looked interesting. The book was over 700 pages long and had tiny print. I finally struggled to the end only to find that the main mystery was left unsolved. I furiously read over the last bit thinking I must have missed something. Nope, no solution. I felt betrayed by wasting all of that precious time only to have no closure. In contrast, Tromly leaves us with a satisfactory mystery with a proper amount of clues, suspects, and red herrings. The book reads quickly and surprises and plot twists keep the reader turning pages. Other subplots are included in the book, but they are relevant to the main point of the story, assist with character development, and don't weigh the book down. Zoe is a character with whom teen girls will identify. There is an element of romance to the book, but it doesn't overwhelm the mystery. Zoe's love triangle is resolved (more or less) on the last two pages in a satisfying way. The best part of Trouble is a Friend of Mine is the humor and banter of the characters throughout the pages. I laughed out loud in several places and felt entertained from start to finish. It is a book that is truly fun to read, which after slogging through the above mentioned adult book came as a welcome breath of fresh air. Tromly is a clever author and, as this is her first novel, one to watch.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Rump: the True Story of Rumpelstiltskin

Rump: the True Story of Rumpelstiltskin
Liesl Shurtliff
Knopf, 2013  261 pgs
Grades 4-8
Fairy Tale/Fantasy

First-time author, Shurtliff, takes on the traditional Rumplestiltskin tale and breaths new life into it. Poor Rump is an undersized orphan who lives with his elderly granny in a small cottage on a mountain previously filled with gold. Rump must toil away mining for gold all day, but times have become lean. The mountain has been stripped of its treasure leaving little left for the greedy miller and gold-hungry king. Rump finds his late mother's spinning wheel and, against Granny's wishes, gives it a try. Much to his surprise, when he feeds straw through the wheel, it turns into gold. The miller instantly suspects Rump's magical talent and exploits it for his own gain. Connected to this magical spell is Rump's inability to refuse any offer made for the gold, so the Miller cheats Rump dreadfully, practically starving the little family, until Granny finally perishes. Rump's troubles escalate as the king visits the village wanting to find the source of the spools of gold. The miller gives credit to his daughter, who is whisked off to the castle. Rump feels obligated to leave behind his small cottage and only friend, Red, in order to help Opal, the Miller's daughter. Opal offers Rump the two things of value that she owns. Finally by night three she has run out of items to trade. It is now that Opal offers up her first born child and Rump is unable to decline, even though he has no interest in Opal's offspring. Rump leaves the castle and Opal and meets some new and interesting friends, including the castle cook and her soldier son, a friendly yet grungy gang of trolls, and, finally, his late mother's long-last family. Rump searches for peace, yet finds himself being drawn back to the castle to collect that which Opal owes him, whether he wants it or not. It is up to Rump to find the strength and magic within himself to break the curse before it destroys him and those he loves.

Shurtliff is not the first author to tackle the fairy tale Rumplestiltskin (my favorite being The Rumpelstiltskin Problem by Vande Velde) and to try and make sense of the strange, yet fascinating tale. She sticks close to the original both in setting and plot points, but fleshes out the story, adding characters and background, helping to make Rump's motivations more believable. The original story has us wondering: who is this Rumpelstiltskin? Why does he chose to help the miller's daughter? Why does he want a baby? Shurtliff clears up some of these questions and sheds new light into the background of the once mysterious gold-spinning creature. Shurtliff paints a vibrant fairy tale world filled with mischievous pixies, thick-headed gnomes and misunderstood trolls. The story contains character development, magic, and gentle humor. This book has substance, but is plot driven and reads quickly. Themes include overcoming your genetic destiny, the evils of greed, standing up to bullies, finding your inner-courage, and the importance of names. The author has gone on to pen Jack: the True Story of Jack and the Beanstalk, released this past spring and will release Red: The True Story of Red Riding Hood, coming in 2016. Fairy Tales are trending right now (yay!) and this title will appeal to fans of the Chris Colfer Land of Stories series, the Ever After High series and the new Disney powerhouse The Descendants.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

The Thing about Jellyfish

The Thing about Jellyfish
Ali Benjamin
Little Brown, 2015
Grades 5-8
Realistic Fiction

Seventh-grader, Suzy is a tween in crisis. Her former best friend Franny, drowned over the summer and Suzy has stopped talking. She and Franny drifted apart the year before as Franny ditched her to become popular. Now Suzy feels like the school outcast and, because of an unfortunate action of retaliation, guilty for how things were left with her former best friend. Franny was an excellent swimmer, so the drowning does not make sense to Suzy. Answers come on a class visit to the local aquarium where Suzy discovers jellyfish and their ability to poison an individual. Suzy becomes obsessed with jellyfish and proving that they were the cause of Franny's death. Her research leads her to some of the most notable jellyfish experts in the world. Looking for help, she settles on an Australian researcher and devises a cunning plan to run away from home, fly to Australia using her divorced father's credit card information, and track the jellyfish expert down to prove the cause of Franny's death. The escape plan does not go as Suzy planned, but it does serve to break the wall of silence and let her family in through the walls of grief and guilt that she has created to cope with the tragedy. By the book's end Suzy is on the road to healing and has found two potential friends and a like-minded science teacher along the way.

This is, I really mean it this time, so far the best book I have read this year. Benjamin tells a powerful story filled with sadness and healing. Even though the subject matter is sad, the book does not wallow in tone or pacing. It moves along quickly and is very readable. Despite the serious theme, children will not be put off the book once they begin reading it and it is very hard to put down. The story behind Suzy and Franny's relationship and its demise is revealed slowly, leaving an element of surprise. The present action, Suzy remembering the past, and life as she reveals it in her journal are all printing in different fonts to help the reader keep straight what is going on, yet adding dimension and layers to the story. Benjamin gently includes jellyfish facts throughout the book, drawing in nature lovers and educating the ignorant (me!). An author's note in the back clarifies some facts and reveals the identities real life jellyfish experts in the story. So far this is my prediction for the Newbery Medal. Why do I think it will win? It is very well written, made me cry twice, and the science connection will appeal to the STEM-mad agenda currently found in both schools and libraries. The Thing about Jellyfish will be enjoyed by both boys and girls and, despite being carefully written, is designed for young readers, not adults who read kid's books. My only quibble is that the new girl dumping the "cool crowd" to befriend Suzy is a bit unrealistic and unnecessary, but young readers will appreciate the happy ending.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The Great Trouble

The Great Trouble: a Mystery of London, the Blue Death, and a Boy Called Eel
Deborah Hopkinson
Knopf, 2003 272 pgs
Grades 5-8
Historical Fiction/Mystery

Eel, an urchin living on the streets of Victorian London and trying to scrape a living anyway he can, gets caught up in the sudden death of numerous folks in his neighborhood from "the Blue Death", otherwise known as cholera. Eel elicits the help of one of his employers Dr. John Snow, a physician/scientist who helped develop anesthesia. By using the scientific method, Dr. Snow iscolates the cause of the epidemic: the neighborhood pump. It is now up to the good doctor with Eel's help to prove it to the city, so the pump will be closed down and no one else will die. Eel and his best friend work tirelessly on a map tracing the streets of the neighborhood and where the disease has spread and Eel helps talk to people, getting information from them and warning them not to drink from the pump. Eel's best friend is stricken with the disease and he also fears for his brother, who lives in the neighborhood with a nasty caregiver. Finally, eel stumbles on a clue leading to a deceased consumer of the water who lives out of the neighborhood, proving Dr. Snow's theory. The investigation culminates with Eel's heroic dash to the health board to save the day, despite his lack of confidence and polish. Eel and his brother's fates are determined by book's end, along with the best friend's recovery, the findings of the cause, and the aftermath of the epidemic.

Part science, part historical Victorian England, part mystery, this book has it all. Hopkinson captures the setting of Victorian London and tells the story in Eel's voice believably. Modern day kids will be surprised at the living conditions of this time period and empathize with Eel as he eeks out a living independently and supports his younger brother with little education and no help. The mystery is in the process of localizing the epidemic and working with Eel to find proof that it came from the well, as well as finding how the germs got in the well in the first place. Hopkinson adds the science involved without getting too "teachy" and educates readers about the scientific method, the history of public health, and the spread of disease. With this past year's Ebola epidemic this is a relevant topic to today and translates to the present making history that much more relatable. Hopkinson uses some true historical figures in telling the story, explaining at the end who was real and who was fiction. This book is a great choice for historical fiction book reports, especially for the scientifically minded and will be enjoyed, particularly, by intelligent youths. The Great Trouble is appropriate for children reading above their grade level who would like a challenge.and love to learn. Factual information, as well as a time-line at the end of the volume will further flesh-out the story for readers and offer the real story behind the fiction.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

The Sleeper and the Spindle

The Sleeper and the Spindle
Neil Gaiman
Chris Riddell (illustrator)
Harper Collins, 2015 69 pgs
Grades 7-Up
Fairy Tale

Veteran author and Newbery winner Neil Gaiman presents a take on a traditional fairy tale with a modern feminist twist. We enter the world of Sleeping Beauty, who is trapped in her sleeping thorn-filled kingdom, which keeps growing. The kingdom on the other side of the mountains hears of the spreading danger. The only folks able to cross the tall mountains are dwarfs, the same dwarfs who helped Snow White. In fact Snow White (although Gaiman never actually uses her name and the reader must figure out her identity independently) is the queen on the other side of the mountains, nearly ready to marry her prince. She hears of the sleeping and leaves with the dwarfs to rescue Sleeping Beauty. Because of being affected by the same sleeping illness herself, although for a shorter period of time, Snow White is able to fight its power. After a dangerous journey the brave queen finds Sleeping Beauty and an old hag by her side. Snow White rouses Sleeping Beauty with a kiss and something about her seems familiar. All is not as it seems and the identities of the participants are revealed to much surprise by the reader. Snow White's next choice after the rescue will also surprise readers and prove her to be brave, independent, and not your typical Disney princess.

I have often declared myself Neil Gaiman's biggest fan. His collection of works is varied and vast, as well as across ages and genres. Gaiman is an expert and lover of folklore and fairy tales and reworks them with precision, imagination and integrity. I first read this story as part of a short story collection called Rags and Bones: New Twists on Timeless Tales, a collection of stories inspired by favorite tales of the authors. This story feels like a traditional fairy tale and its wording is rich and beautiful. Gaiman keeps the traditional elements and adds a modern feminist sensibility by making Snow White beautiful, yet fierce, and having her, instead of a prince, wake Sleeping Beauty. Playing with the identities of Sleeping Beauty and the Hag make the tale that much more interesting and give it a new dimension. It makes sense to connect the tales of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, especially since they both share the common thread of the sleeping curse. The story is made that much more richer by the illustrations contributed by Riddell. They are lavish and beautiful, primarily penned in black with gold accents throughout. The volume is beautifully designed and packaged and will thrill fans of Gaiman, especially those of his classic Stardust. Because of the length and illustrations, younger children will be drawn to this book, but it is deceptively sophisticated and meant for an older audience. For this reason it may have a hard time finding its target readership. Teen and adult fans of fantasy, graphic novels, and Gaiman (like me!) will fall into The Sleeper and the Spindle and devour it. A true gem! 

Friday, October 2, 2015

The Hired Girl

The Hired Girl
Laura Amy Schlitz
Candlewick, 2015
Grades 7-Up
Historical Fiction

Written in diary format, Newery Medal winning Schlitz pens the life of a young girl struggling for survival and identity one hundred years in America's past. Fourteen-year-old Joan is forced to leave school, which she loves, and work on her family farm with her abusive father and indifferent brothers. Joan's mother hid some money for her before she died and this is what Joan uses as she escapes her life and travels to Baltimore. Once there, she has nowhere to go and is taken in by the Rosenbach family as a "hired girl" or general maid for $6 a week plus room and board. Joan changes her name to Janet and reinvents herself as a working eighteen -year-old. Janet is no stranger to hard work and finds the job no problem. More troublesome is learning to get along with the elderly housekeeper and finding her place in the family, especially as she begins to make friends with the daughter, who is her age, and starting to develop feelings for the Rosenbach's son, David. Meanwhile, Janet rediscovers her catholic roots and begins to attend mass and catechism classes with the priest in order to reclaim her faith and feel closer to her deceased mother. This becomes confusing living in a traditional Jewish household and Janet learns to respect the faiths of others all while embracing that of her own. Janet's feelings for David escalate as he uses her as a model for his painting, takes her to the opera, and eventually kisses her. By book's end Janet's secrets are revealed to the Rosenbach's family, leading to a satisfying, yet realistic ending.

Writing for an older audience and much more readable than her previous and critically acclaimed works, Schlitz offers us a historic and social account based on the real life experiences of her grandmother. The diary format allows for intimacy and helps the reader to become fully immersed in the hopes, dreams, and life experiences of a young girl with completely foreign experiences to modern young people. Janet takes nothing for granted. She is naive and innocent. Electricity, plumbing, books, entertainment, education, and even going to church are luxuries she is used to living without. Her life in Baltimore offers her many new opportunities, including the freedom to read with a library full of books at her fingertips, a morning and afternoon off from work, spending money, and the permission to practice the religion handed down to her by her mother. Religion is not a topic often explored in books for young people and when it is, it is often in a negative light. Schlitz honestly presents Janet's religious experience as a choice and comfort. We also see Janet learning to respect Judaism and standing up to antisemitism. Social class structure of the day, women's roles, and discrimination are all themes that are featured. The book itself is a decent length and reads quickly. Because of the diary format, it will appeal to reluctant readers. The interesting cover will draw readers in and Janet's passions and courage will keep them turning pages. The book does not end perfectly for Janet, but ends in the best way realistically possible and on a hopeful note. Fans of Downton Abbey in particular will enjoy reading The Hired Girl.