Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Dime

Dime
E.R. Frank
Atheneum, 2015  317 pgs
Grades 9-Up
Realistic Fiction

Thirteen-year-old Dime lives with an abusive alcoholic foster mother in urban Newark, New Jersey. When it becomes no longer safe to stay, Dime runs away. After a cold night on the street she is taken in by a young woman with nice clothes and hot food, who calls herself L.A., to an apartment that L.A. shares with a handsome man called "Daddy". Soon they are joined by sixteen-year-old recovering drug addict, Brandy. Dime falls in love with Daddy, who she believes has saved her and keeps her safe. She continues to go to school, but soon is forced into working at night with L.A. and Brandy: as a prostitute. Dime hates her job, but loves the safety and protection Daddy offers her. Even after she is no longer in love with Daddy and sees him for the master manipulator that he is, she still sees no other way out of her situation. The only solace Dime finds is at the public library where, through the kindness of a librarian, she discovers To Kill a Mockingbird and The Color Purple. After a particularly horrific trip down south Daddy buys an eleven-year-old girl to add to his stable, eventually returning to their old life in Newark. Dime feels compelled to tell the story of the girls and write it all down (the results being the book we are reading) and tries to figure a way out of her hopeless and powerless situation.

Psychotherapist, Frank, is an expert in adolescent trauma and capturing the experience into words. I read America many years back and both loved it and hated it. The same goes for Frank's latest book Dime. This is such an uncomfortable and difficult book to read, especially for someone who works with teenagers and has two of them living in her home. That said, it is exquisitely written. Frank manages to find Dime's voice and maintain it throughout the book. At times Dime tries to narrate the story using the other girl's voices (also well captured) and even at times uses "money" , "truth", and "sex" as narrators (a device made popular through The Book Thief). The book is beautiful, disturbing, and impossible to put down. I found it particularly relevant since it is set in Newark, just down the road from the comfortable suburbs that I work and reside in. Frank's intention is to give a voice to the voiceless, raise awareness about teen prostitution and human trafficking, and maybe reach kids stuck in a similar situation to let them know that they are not alone. Resources in the back can lead teenagers to agencies that can help them and an extensive bibliography can help the reader to learn more about this terrible practice happening at our backdoor and under our noses. This book reads quickly and would be a great high quality choice for reluctant readers. Please be aware: the subject matter is VERY mature and graphic and many teenagers (and adults like me) will find it disturbing. I love that Frank has offered solace in the form of books and the library as a sanctuary. The only truly kind person to Dime was a librarian who breaks the rules to let her borrow a book and recommends life changing titles. I want to be that librarian and this book inspires me to keep my eyes and heart open to perhaps make a difference in a young person's life through the power of books.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Terrible Typhoid Mary

Terrible Typhoid Mary: A True Story of the Deadliest Cook in America
Susan Campbell Bartoletti
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015  229 pgs
Grades 5-8
Narrative Non-Fiction

Veteran author of non-fiction for young people, Bartoletti offers an account of the life of "Typhoid Mary " and the spread of typhoid and other contagious diseases in turn of the century America. Mary worked as a cook in the early 1900's in many different affluent houses in and around New York City. It was discovered that the houses in which she served had several cases of typhoid, although Mary herself was never struck. Famous disease tracker, George Soper, discovers Mary working at yet another New York City kitchen and with the Board of Heath's support demands that she agrees to testing. Mary refuses and what ensues becomes a bitter battle over the government's responsibility to keep the public safe and the civil rights of a citizen. Mary is eventually taken into custody and imprisoned at a now-defunct hospital facility on a New York City island. It was discovered that the typhoid bacteria was living in Mary's gallbladder and, although she never contracted the disease herself, she was a carrier, infecting others through her cooking. The eventual outcome of Mary and the other players, as well as the history of public health as it applies to this groundbreaking case, and the handling of contagious diseases at the time is all included. A photo album as well as extensive notes, bibliography and index round out the volume.

We have all heard of "Typhoid Mary", but do you really know the truth behind the legend? Mary was a real person and her responsibility of spreading the disease and the sensationalism of the case as reported by the "yellow journalism" of the times are carefully traced by researcher and writer Bartoletti. This is a work of non-fiction, yet is highly readable and narrative in nature. Bartoletti writes in a way that will both educate and entertain young people. She is very mindful of wording parts of the narrative embellished for the sake of the story to read "Mary might have thought..." or "perhaps Mary might have...", carefully documenting the parts of the story know to be fact and backing them up with sources. Beyond the framework of Mary's life, there is a history of the spread of contagious diseases in turn-of-the-century New York, especially among the cramped immigrant neighborhoods and a scientific background of how typhoid grows in the body. Kids will read this book for fun. Both non-fiction and fiction lovers alike will enjoy this book. There is enough science and history in the book to make it educational, yet it remains highly readable and an all-around great story. Wide margins and large print keep the pages turning easily and generous pictures sprinkled throughout the volume and offered in a separate section at the end add further appeal. A perfect fit for the core curriculum, Terrible Typhoid Mary will find a place both in school and public libraries.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The War That Saved My Life

The War That Saved My Life
Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
Penguin, 2015  316 pgs
Grades 5-7
Historical Fiction

Ada has spent her whole childhood in a dingy London flat above the pub where her mom works. Her only companion is her brother Jamie, who escapes from the house most of the day. Ada can't leave. She has a clubfoot and her abusive mother won't take her to a doctor or allow her out of the house and into the public. When children are being evacuated from London at the start of World War II, Ada sees her chance. She limps to the train station with the help of a kindly neighbor and ends up in a sea town on the coast of Kent.  Ada and Jamie are taken in by a cranky and sad lady named Susan, who doesn't seem to want the children. Left to their own devices, they enjoy fresh air and healthy food for the first time in their deprived lives. Ada discovers a pony formally belonging to Susan's recently deceased companion . Ada falls in love with the pony and teaches herself to ride. The two children slowly begin to adjust to country life and learn to trust Susan. Susan begins to warm up to them and to find healing and purpose now that she has the children in her life. The war heats up and with it come air-raids, bombs, volunteering for the war effort, and rationing. Through it all, Ada and Jamie grow and mature, finding confidence and learning to trust the people around them. Ada discovers that just because her foot doesn't work, her brain does. She finally allows Susan to teach her to read and write and even manages to catch a spy and demand that the police take her seriously. Just when the children are starting to relax into their new lives, their mother returns and wants them back. What follows is both heartbreaking and heart-warming and all around fully satisfying.

The War That Saved My Life is my new favorite book. I did not read it when it first came out over last winter because I thought the subject matter seemed boring and kids wouldn't pick it up. Because of all the wonderful reviews it has received, I finally broke down and read it. Boy, was I glad I did! Although at over 300 pages the book appears to be a little long, it reads really fast. The plot moves along quickly and it is absorbing from the very first page. The abuse Ada suffers from her mother is hard to read and understand. Children will be rooting for Ada's escape and healing every step of the way. Written in the first person, Bradley keeps Ada's voice consistent and we experience right along with her the wonder of new things, such as changing leaves and green grass. Ada's thought patterns become more complex as she grows in maturity and wisdom. When the mother returns it is difficult to read now that Ada is on the road to healing, but it is necessary for her to face her fears and take control over her destiny in order to achieve closure with her past abuse. Themes of the misery that is war will still ring true today, as will the healing power of animals and the importance of living in community. I am currently watching a PBS series taking place on the rural home front of World War II. This book served as a perfect companion to my watching. The World War II experience through the eyes of a British child is unusual to American children's books. Add the dimension of overcoming a handicap and abuse, as well as a powerful plot and you have a worth while and enjoyable read.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Better Nate Than Ever

Better Nate Than Ever
Tim Federle
Simon and Schuster, 2013  275 pgs.
Grades 5-7
Realistic Fiction

Thirteen-year-old Nate Foster schemes with his best friend Libby to escape for a day from small town PA to the bright lights of New York City to audition for Elliot in "E.T.: The Musical". Libby coaches Nate and agrees to cover for him while his parents are out of town and leave his sports hero older brother in charge. The big city is even more dazzling than Nate had hoped. He makes his way from the bus station to the audition, only getting mildly and naively distracted along the way. Once he reaches the audition space, he realizes that he is the only actor without a parent present. Nate fakes his age and gathers all the bravado and courage he can muster. At zero hour, when he is on the way to being dismissed because of lack of a parent's permission, in walks a long-lost aunt to save the day. Aunt Heidi was also bitten by the acting bug and escaped Pennsylvania to find fame and fortune as an actress, only to end up hostessing at a kitschy New York restaurant. Aunt Heidi knows the audition process, however, and has Nate up and running in no time. After being dismissed Nate is naturally very disappointed and Aunt Heidi puts him on a bus back to Pennsylvania. Imagine his surprise when he receives a phone call on the way out of the audition. It is a CALL BACK! Nate jumps off the bus and back to the studio for round two. After a hilarious series of events, the audition is over, it is turning dark and cold, and now Nate has no where to sleep, no money in his pocket, and no coat to keep him warm. What is an tenacious thespian to do? Read the book to find out!

Professional Broadway actor, Federle, is no stranger to the audition process and the highs and lows of the acting business. .Broadway bound kids will hang on to every word of this book (I know I did!), if only to get the inside scoop of what the New York acting scene is really like. Besides offering a much needed glimpse into professional acting for young people, Federle leads his readers on a hilarious adventure. Nate's journey has many twists, turns, and nail biting moments. All seems lost, and then an all important call comes through. This scenario happens more than once. Nate bumbles around the city reaching where he needs to be almost by accident. His adventures make me a nervous wreck, but kids will enjoy experiencing New York in all its glory through Nate's eyes. The book is laugh-out-loud funny and had me literally guffawing. Federle could be a comedian if he chooses to hang up his dancing shoes and/or leave writing, which would be a shame. Nate's character is larger than life, but realistic for a young man this committed to following his dreams. He is lovable, consistently cheerful, and unexpected. He is also a survivor of bullying and although he doesn't dwell on it, you can see that it hurts. Nate is tortured at school, camp, and by his brother for being gay. Although as an adult reader, I think he certainly is heading in that direction, Nate says that he is not ready to think about romance of any kind yet. I think that it is important for kids who are confused about whether they feel like kissing boys or girls to know that they are not alone. It is also important for kids who know exactly who they are to experience what it feels like not to be sure and to be ridiculed for it. Underneath all the dashing about the city, the arduous auditions, and the jokes, we see Nate's family problems including his parents struggling marriage and his mother's secrets. This is a deceptively deep book wrapped in a funny and glitzy package. The book ends with Nate receiving the call from the casting director with news about whether or not he got the part, but the reader never knows the outcome. Luckily, Federle has released Five, Six, Seven, Nate! with the next installment of Nate's adventures.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Shadowshaper

Shadowshaper
Daniel Jose Older
Scholastic, 2015  297 pgs.
Grades 9-Up
Urban Fantasy

Sierra is a normal teenager growing up in Brooklyn. Suddenly things begin to change in her neighborhood; old men are dying, faces in murals are crying, and her ill grandfather incessantly mumbles apologies that make no sense. Grandpa's buddy, Manny, encourages Sierra to continue with her artwork, constructing murals that flank her Brooklyn neighborhood. It is here that she befriends fellow artist, Robbie, and the two teenagers, through a mutual love of art and suspicion about the strange goings-on, develop a romantic relationship. Through Robbie Sierra discovers that she is a "Shadowshaper" with the ability to make her art come to life. It is an ancient gift handed down through her family. A greedy professor discovered this gift and decided to have the power for himself. This is why grandpa and his pals are dying; the evil professor is stealing their powers. The most powerful Shadowshaper goes by the name Lucera and this identity can also be inherited/stolen. The professor is eager to obtain the powers of Lucera. As the novel progresses the identity of the most recent Lucera is revealed, as is the next in line. To defeat the evil professor Sierra must get help from her friends, family, Robbie, and even a new librarian friend who assists her with research. She must battle monstrous shadow creatures and stop their master from destroying the world as we know it.

First time teen author, Older, offers a contemporary and hip fantasy sure to be popular with teenagers. Sierra is an interesting and relate-able protagonist. Her friends are diverse and developed. All the characters are humanly flawed, yet face their fears and get out of their comfort zones ready to fight evil. The plot moves quickly with plenty of twists and surprises to keep readers turning pages.The book itself is shorter than most fantasy novels, contains short chapters, and reads quickly, making this selection a great choice for reluctant readers. Even though the main character of the book is female, Shadowshaper is not "girlie" and will be enjoyed by boys willing to give it a chance. The magical elements are believable and seem realistic to the modern New York setting. Older has answered the call for diversity in books for for young people and presents a rainbow of characters residing in what is primarily a Latino neighborhood. The book climaxes at Coney Island, which seemed ironic to me. Ever since I went to this famous beach community in Brooklyn last June it feels like almost every book I read ends up in Coney Island. No matter, Brooklyn almost feels like its own character within the book and is important to the story. Shadowshaper is a stand alone novel, but Older could easily write more adventures for Sierra and her friends.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

The Eye of Minds

The Eye of Minds
James Dashner
Random House, 2013
Grades 6-10
Science Fiction/Adventure
The Mortality Doctrine Series vol. 1

James Dashner offers a series opener with the same futuristic suspense and adventure as his widely popular Maze Runner series, but this time with an emphasis on computer coding. Teenager Michael lives with a housekeeper while his parents are away on an extended trip. He spends most of his time in the VirtNet; a simulated video game world. Micahel has two best friends, Bryson and Sarah, whom he has never met in real-life, only in the VirtNet. Micheal is approached by the VNS to use his coding skills to fight a destructive hacker named Kaine who is causing player's actual deaths. Kaine has developed a loophole in the VirtNet called "The Morality Doctrine" and it is here that Michael and his friends are sent to ferret him out. If Kaine remains unchecked it could lead to the worst cyber terrorism the world has ever seen. The three friends enter the VirtNet and begin a series of adventures, along the lines of mini-games, leading them further and further into the cyber world. After a particularly violent war game they find the portal that leads them to Kaine's secret domain. Coding skills, courage, and ingenuity allow the teens to conquer one challenge after another, as the stakes keep getting higher. First one friend and then another falls in the game, but Michael keeps going. Finally Michael encounters Kaine and a massive battle begins, ending in a very surprising fashion. Michael discovers secrets about his identity, world, and the VirtNet. The book ends with a big reveal and a cliff hanger, leading the reader to the next installment in the series: The Rule of Thoughts (released in 2014).

Dashner knows how to write for young teenage boys. His books are exciting, fast, imaginative and filled with plot twists. The Morality Doctrine series has even more appeal than his other books in that it deals with computer coding; which is very hot right now. All the young men I know are into coding and video games and consider themselves very adept at video technology (and compared to myself and most grown-ups, they are!). Dasher writes a cautionary tale featuring a future where video games become so advanced and encompassing that people spend all of their waking non-working hours in the cyber world. To enter this world a player lies in something similar to a tanning bed and is completely mentally taken away, able to feel, touch and taste everything cyberly. This sounds like a dream come true for most teenagers, but Dashner shows the reader the dangers of letting the cyber world overshadow reality. Kids who pick up this book will love it, careening quickly from start to finish. Each challenge Michael and his friends face is another game-like situation and they use coding and reason to move to the next challenge. Reluctant readers will find much to enjoy here. The length of the book is perfect, the chapters are short, and the print is a good size. Much of the characterization and plot lines read like a comic book, but that works for the theme of the story and the intended audience. I honestly didn't see the twist at the end coming and thought it was pretty clever. With the third title in the series coming out this month, there are places to go once readers complete this series opener. A sure hit with the intended audience.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Bad Magic

Bad Magic
Pseudonymous Bosch
Little Brown, 2014
Grades 4-7
Mystery
The "Bad Books" Series

Clay adores his magician big brother, Max-Ernest, who has taught him the secrets of his trade. When Max-Ernest grows up and disappears, leaving Clay with dysfunctional and emotionally distant parents, he begins to resent his brother and turn his back on magic. A new English teacher exposes the class to Shakespeare's The Tempest, making the play come alive for the students, and encourages the class to keep a journal. One day while feeling resentment towards his brother, Clay writes "Magic Sucks" in his journal. Imagine his surprise when the phrase appears on the wall of the school exactly as he wrote it. This lands Clay in serious trouble and he is sent to a summer camp for delinquents on a deserted island. Upon arrival he is assigned a llama buddy and proceeds to make friends with the other misfits in his cabin. The island contains an active volcano and was previously the property of an eccentric millionaire. The millionaire was an avid book collector and built a library for his rare books on the island, which is still standing. Clay thinks he sees a mysterious girl in the window. Could it be the ghost of the millionaire's niece who also inhabited the island and died mysteriously? Clay must solve the mystery of the girl in the library and figure out the seemingly magical goings-on all around him on the island, all while dodging the camp bully and questioning his own sanity. The secrets behind the island are revealed by book's end, but lead the reader to new questions of which will be answered in the next installment in the series Bad Luck, due to be released in February 2016.

As he did with his "Secret" series, Bosch has created an unusual, well crafted yarn much in the vein of Lemony Snicket's Unfortunate Events series. Bosch's books are always deliciously weird and deceivably clever. Bad Magic will appeal to smart kids with big imaginations. The book is a mystery and appears to have fantastical elements. As we reach the end of the book, much of the mystery is solved (leaving threads to be picked up in the next installment) and the fantasy bits are explained. Even though plots threads are left open to lead readers further on in the series, enough is solved that the ending is satisfying and the results, if not easily get-able, make sense in an unexpected, yet gratifying way. This book moves quickly, has a well layered plot, and is chock full of interesting characters. Full page cartoon-like illustrations further contribute to the entertainment value of the novel. Still, this remains a quality read. Bosch does not compromise vocabulary. Further, The Tempest becomes essential to the plot, perhaps leading readers to the original play. The end of the novel contains directions for making a potato robot (much like the one constructed by one of Clay's cabin mates) as well as directions for performing a magic rope trick that Clay uses to dazzle his fellow campers. Smart kids will gobble this fun and meaty book up and cruise right over to the next installment in the series as soon as its released.