Thursday, December 29, 2016

All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook

Image result for all rise perry cookAll Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook
Leslie Connor
HarperCollins, 2016  378 pgs.
Grades 5-7
Realistic Fiction

Perry has not had a normal childhood. He has spent his whole eleven years living in a correctional facility. Perry's mother entered the facility pregnant with him after accidentally causing the death of her father in a car crash. After Perry's birth the kind warden at the facility made it possible for Perry to stay, eventually leaving every day for school and returning home to his unconventional "family". Perry and his mother long for the day when she is released on parole and the two of them can share an apartment and a life on the "outside". These dreams come crashing down around them when Perry's best and only friend Zoe's stepfather, the county's district attorney, becomes aware of the situation. He is appalled at Perry's unusual living situation and demands Perry's immediate removal, offering his own house as a  temporary foster home. Beyond this, the DA is blocking Mom's parole hearing and fighting to keep her in prison. The warden loses her job, Perry is ripped away from the only home he has ever known, and it looks as if Mom is not getting out any time soon. It is up to Perry to discover the truth behind the accident that sent Mom to prison. There seem to be holes in the story and Perry needs to get to the bottom of the case in order to prove her innocence. Meanwhile, Mom is doing nothing to help herself. What is she hiding? We find out as the novel moves along to a final dramatic courtroom scene, where Perry must speak up to defend his little family and the person he loves the most in the world.

As Connor points out in the afterward, children with one or more parents living in a correctional facility is reality for one out of twenty-eight children living in the United States. This book brings to light some of the struggles and and experiences shared by these children and legitimizes their stories. Through Perry we see that people serving time in prison have made mistakes, but still are real people with feelings and families. Mom has made the best of a bad situation, getting her degree while behind bars, trying to be the best mother she can, and helping other inmates adjust to prison life and to prepare for release. Perry is a good natured and optimistic kid. His whole life comes crashing down when he is forced to leave his home and move into a strange house, but he never gives up hope and works hard to achieve the goals for which he aims. Perry and Zoe even befriend the school bully in order to get help with a video project to present at Mom's trial. This book has interesting characters and a good plot. There is a mystery element as Perry discovers Mom's file and tracks down the details of the case. And, best of all, the mystery does get solved by the end as the reader learns the true details behind the accident and Mom's motivation for confessing. Life is complicated and your path can change in a blink of an eye. This is one of the messages delivered by Connor, as well as that people have many shades of both good and bad and aren't always what they seem at first glance. This was an enjoyable story with some good messages, character development and a happy ending. My only complaints are that it was too long and it may have been sewn up a bit too tidely, but kids like a fairy tale ending, so I will forgive this. Kids will be interested in reading a book about a fellow child who lives in a prison and the inviting cover will welcome them in. The light-hearted nature of the story keeps the book age appropriate and upbeat even though the subject matter is gritty and serious.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Girl in the Blue Coat

Image result for girl blue coat hesseGirl in the Blue Coat
Monica Hesse
Little Brown, 2016  301 pgs
Grades 8-Up
Historical Fiction/Mystery

Hanneke is a runner on the black market in World War II occupied Amsterdam. Her employer, a mortician, uses the ration cards from dead people to acquire good for resale at inflated prices. Because of her connection to the "underground", a neighbor, 
Mrs. Janssen, implores Hanneke to help her locate a missing Jewish teenage girl that she was hiding in a secret room in her pantry. Hanneke gets caught up in the disappearance of Mirjam, who was last seen wearing a blue coat. Finding Mirjam will somehow compensate for the guilt and loss surrounding the death of her boyfriend, who was killed during the Nazi invasion. The late boyfriend's brother, Ollie, agrees to help Hanneke locate Mirjam, sweeping her into the world of the Dutch underground. Through these new contacts Hanneke meets some courageous young people who are willing to sacrifice their own lives to save their countrymen. Surprises await Hanneke as her quest continues, including the nature behind Ollie's romantic intentions, the fate of the new friends she has met, and the whereabouts of Mirjam. Nothing is what Hanneke originally thought as she slowly begins to unravel the truth behind the missing girl's whereabouts and painfully begins to come to terms with her own loss.

So many holocaust books have come out in the last few years and I feel as if I needed a break from them. The Girls in the Blue Coat seemed to be a fresh take on the genre, so I gave it a try and was glad that I did. As much of a mystery as a work of historical fiction, Hesse adds a bonus layer of a young woman coming of age during a terrible time and wrestling with terrible guilt. We see Hanneke grow from a self-absorbed teenager worrying about her own survival and grief to a much more developed adult, willing to help her society as a whole and seeing beyond her own needs and feelings.The mystery offers plots twists that I didn't see coming and Hanneke herself tracks down the clues, often at great personal peril. Throughout the story, as more of the truth is revealed behind the characters, readers are exposed to the daily life of occupied Amsterdam during the second world war. Hesse has done her research and the setting feels rich and authentic, allowing readers to experience what life was like during this time. Growing up I read and re-read Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl and Corrie Ten Boom's The Hiding Place, true accounts of the Holocaust in the Netherlands. The Girl in the Blue Coat, though fictionalized, is historically accurate and a great companion to the before mentioned titles. Although the main character of this book is a girl, both male and female readers will enjoy the story and it has a great potential for classroom connections. A great tale that will make the reader's life richer for spending time with it.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Some Writer! The Story of E.B. White

Image result for some writer white sweetSome Writer! The Story of E.B. White
Melissa Sweet
HMH, 2016  161 pages
Grades 3-7

Veteran children's book creator and two-time Caldecott honor winning artist takes on both the writing and artwork in this new biography tracing the life and works of E.B. White. Little is known of this important contributor to children's literature. White's Charlotte's Web is considered by some to be the best children's book of all times. It's certainly important and has stood the test of time. Readers learn the story behind the writer of this classic tale, among others, from his childhood in upstate New York, summers in Maine, college years, and career writing for The New Yorker. Why do we know so little about E.B. White? Its because he lived a quiet life, spending most of his time in rural Maine. He was a lover of farm animals, dogs, and boats. He hated public appearances and large gatherings. White occupied himself puttering around the farm, sailing on the nearby lake, spending time with his family, and writing essays, letters, his column for The New Yorker and, yes, wonderful children's books. This volume is infused by the characteristic collage/watercolor art work of Sweet, as well as family photographs contributed by White's granddaughter. The granddaughter also penned an afterward. Other extensive back-matter includes an index, bibliography, author's note, and timeline. Many quotes and except's from White's writings are incorporated within the text and this is my favorite: "Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down. Children are demanding. They are the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick, and generally congenial readers on earth." Hear, Hear!

If Charlotte cracked into this book about her author E.B. White she would weave the word "stunning" into her web. Sweet has pulled together a well written and visual feast for young people. I first encountered the gorgeous end-papers, a mix of watercolors and White's musings about chickens, and turned the page to encounter a family tree and an alluring photo of the White family when E.B. was but a baby. From there the reader turns the page to be greeted by a beautifully constructed page containing this quote of White's: "I believed then, as I do now, in the goodness of the published word: it seemed to contain an essential goodness, like the smell of leaf mold." At this point I was hooked and fell into this book and was dazzled page after page. Sweet lovingly and artistically traces the quiet life of White in a respectful and thorough manner. I knew very little about this important author and now feel as if he is a friend. The design of the volume is perfection and the blend of words, original artwork, historic artifacts, and photographs works much like a symphony. Even though White's life was simple and quiet, the book is never boring and the visual will keep readers turning pages. This was my favorite book of the year. Will it win the Newbery? Probably not, since the artwork is partly what makes it so special. That said, a picture book won last year, so all bets are off. Although the lack of diversity in both the subject matter and the author/artist will not do it any favors. It certainly will show up on "best book" lists and is much deserving of any honors it receives.

Friday, December 16, 2016

The Poet's Dog

Image result for poets dogThe Poet's Dog
Patricia MacLachlan
HarperCollins, 2016  88 pages
Grades 2-5

This lyrical jem of a book starts out with a poem by the author:

Dogs speak words
But only poets
And children

This poem sets the stage for what is to come. Our narrator is Teddy, an Irish wolfhound. Teddy finds two children lost in the woods during a snowstorm. He escorts them back to the remote cabin he previously shared with an elderly poet who has since passed away. Because the poet read to him incessantly, Teddy acquired to gift of speech. Unfortunately, only poets and children have the ability/imagination to hear him. The lost children, Nickel and Flora spend several days with Teddy in the cozy cabin, staying warm by the fire and forging the kitchen for food. As the children hunker down during the storm, italicized sections tell the story of the "before time", when Teddy lived with his poet, who eventually become sick and died. Teddy has not been able to leave the cabin for a new home and his life has continued in a state of mourning limbo. Eventually the storm lifts. The children's father arrives with a surprising connection to Teddy and a new lease on life for the old dog.

This is a slight, quiet story that is not as simple or juvenile as it first appears. MacLachlan, of Sarah, Plain and Tall fame proves that she's still "got it". This carefully constructed volume reads much like a poem written by the former master of our hero. Her love of poetry and words and respect for the power of reading shines through and will surely encourage young readers to delve into the magic of words, perhaps taking a crack at writing their own poems. Her love and understanding of dogs is also evident in this story and she manages to portray our narrator in a believable and genuine way. The story is simple, yet has a plot, conflict, and never is boring. The flash back portions are easy to follow and add surprise to the tale as Teddy's past is slowly revealed. Margins are wide, text is large, and chapters are short, making this a quick read. I read it during one lunch hour with people walking in and out and talking at me. The story would make an excellent read aloud and would serve as a wonderful introduction to poetry units. The ending is deliciously happy, landing Teddy in his new forever home and leaving our characters safe, sound, and gloriously happy. It doesn't get batter than that!

Saturday, December 10, 2016

The Dark Days Club

Image result for dark days clubThe Dark Days Club
Alison Goodman
Penguin, 2016  472 pages
Grades 9-Up
Fantasy/Romance/Historical Fiction
Lady Helen Series #1

Eighteen-year-old orphaned Lady Helen Wrexhall is about to make her debut in the Regency London world of 1812. Her social standing and eligibility is helped by a considerable fortune, but tainted by her dead mother's reputation of being a traitor. Disreputable Lord Carlston returns to London after a long absence (did he kill his wife?) and he begins to pay unwanted attention to the new debutante. A desirable suitor and family friend, the Duke of Selburn, also begins to make advances. Meanwhile, a maid in the household goes missing and Lady Helen and her trusty lady's maid attempt to solve the mystery. As her ball approaches, Lady Helen starts to feel weird twinges. An heirloom belonging to her mother and several convoluted conversation with Lord Carlston reveal that she inherited from her mother the power to be a "Reclaimer", an elite group of individuals with supernatural abilities designed to fight "Deceivers", carefully disguised demons camouflaged among society draining humans of their life force. The Dark Days Club is a group of both Reclaimers and civilians, pledged to rid the world of this evil and they long to have Helen join their ranks. The problem is, Lady Helen is reluctant to join. It involves violence, great physical pain, and the absence of a normal life. She knows the best course of action is to find a way to escape her destiny as a Reclaimer and marry the Duke, yet she struggles with protecting the world from the demons and her growing feelings for the dark Lord Selburn. The fate of the missing servant is revealed and Lady Helen's choice appears to be made, yet some questions remain unanswered leading readers to the next installment in the series The Dark Days Pact, scheduled be be released next month.

I am a big fan of books set in Regency England and was eager to finally have a chance to read this book. The publisher labeled this book as a mash-up between Jane Austen and Buffy the Vampire Slayer and that description is pretty accurate. Lady Helen is living within the restrictions of her time and place, under the watchful eye of a controlling and judgmental uncle. The fact that she's a Reclaimer comes as a surprise to everyone, especially herself, as she seems so ill-fitting for the position. Once Lady Helen grows into her powers, her qualifications seem secure and with help of her side kick/lady's maid, is ready to take on the bad guys. There is enough supernatural in this book to satisfy those fans and enough romance to please that audience as well. The prerequisite love triangle in the post-Twilight world of teen fiction is predominate in the plot and heart straining. Readers will understand Helen's predicament on how to chose the right path and suitor and be rooting for both choices. The supernatural elements are believable to the story and make for a fresh take on this genre. I felt that the book was too long and I started to get a bit antsie about halfway through. The plot twists and action kept me going to the end, although I don't think I will invest the time in reading the sequel. The mystery behind the missing maid was not solved by Lady Helen, which was a bit disappointing and its solution was a bit of an afterthought. This said, young readers won't care. They will want to see Lady Helen kick more demon butt and be anxious to know which guy she ends up choosing. And what did happen to Lord Carlston's wife? This answer alone will lead readers along to the next installment.

Friday, December 9, 2016

As Brave as You

Image result for as brave as you reynoldsAs Brave As You
Jason Reynolds
Atheneum/Simon & Schuster, 2016  410 pgs
Grades 4-8
Realistic Fiction

Genie is a very thoughtful and sensitive eleven-year-old boy. His head burns with questions and his heart burns with emotions. He and his older brother Ernie are sent to rural Virginia to stay with his parental grandparents, who he doesn't really know, while his parents travel to Jamaica to try to work out their marriage. Life in Virginia is as different from Brooklyn as you can get. To further complicate matters, Genie discovers that Grandpa is blind, a fact that no one chose to reveal beforehand. Ernie, who is about to turn 14 and is very cool and tough, takes to the new surroundings as he strikes up a friendship/romance with a neighboring girl. Genie spends time connecting with his Grandfather, discovering that even adults have guilty feelings, get scared, and sometimes don't have all the answers. The boys spend their days doing chores for the first time, such as helping Grandma grow peas and sell them at a local farmer's market, running around exploring the woods, and forging new relationships. As Ernie's birthday approaches, Grandpa is determined to participate in the local coming-of-age tradition involving learning to shoot a gun, which yields predictably disastrous results, bringing many old feelings and hurts to the surface in the adults around Genie that he doesn't fully understand. By book's end many feelings are processed, old hurts forgiven, and relationships mended. Genie and Ernie return to Brooklyn older, wiser, and richer for their summer in the country.

This book is a departure for Reynolds, who tends to write urban fiction. A little less intense than his other work and infused with humor, As Brave As You still manages to pack a lot of content within its pages. Themes explored by Reynolds include connecting to your past, the benefit of young people having chores, the importance of honesty, owning up to your mistakes, letting go of guilt, the definition of what manhood means, the dangers of guns, what defines being "cool", the importance of family, and what it means to be brave. Both Genie and Grandpa have regrets that they must atone for. As the summer goes by and they venture together out into the night, Genie helping Grandpa to face his fears of the outdoors, they both learn to let go of their mistakes and try to put them right. Every character experiences growth throughout this novel, which is more character driven than plot intensive. I applaud Reynolds in the way he manages to capture Genie's voice and keep it consistent throughout the book. I feel like this is Reynolds's greatest gift as an author. My only complaint is that the book is a little long. That said, it is so finely written I wouldn't want anything edited out. I also feel that the cover doesn't do it any favors. I've had this book in my library since it's release in May and it hasn't been circulating. I don't know if its because of the cover, the length, or if rural Virginia doesn't appeal to New Jersey youth. At any rate, this is a fine piece of middle grade fiction that kids would enjoy and befit from spending time with if they gave it a chance.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Gertie's Leap to Greatness

Image result for gerties leapGertie's Leap to Greatness
Kate Beasley
FSG, 2016  249 pgs
Grades 3-5
Realistic Fiction/Humor

Gertie is has an important mission: to become the greatest fifth grader in the entire universe. This mission is the result of her estranged mother's impending move from her small southern hometown. If she became the "best" than her mother would love her and want her as a daughter. Gertie lives with her doting father, who is often away at his job on an oil rig, and her great-aunt Rae, whose no-nonsense, yet nurturing parenting has provided Gertie with a loving and secure home. A first day of school presentation with a zombie-frog looks like it will seal Gertie's success, but a surprise awaits her. A new girl from Hollywood moves to town and is put in Gertie's class. Mary Sue's father is a director and she knows the most famous teen actress, insuring her immediate popularity and squelching Gertie's chance of stardom. Gertie pulls out all of the stops to surpass Mary Sue in both popularity and success with disastrous results. She manages to alienate practically the whole class, loosing long-time friends in the process, and even offending the pain-in-the-neck little girl that Aunt Rae babysits. Gertie and Mary Sue go toe-to-toe in an audition for the lead in the school play. Gertie gets what she wants and it looks like she may achieve her mission after all. A surprise visit to mother leaves her with more doubts than ever and then a bad choice at school puts her in the dog house. All works out for the best by the end and some relationships are restored, yet not exactly in the way Gertie was aiming for.

Beasley introduces the latest feisty girl character in the tradition of Ramona and Clementine, although for a slightly older audience. Gertie tries hard to get things right, but always just misses. Sometimes the results of her failed efforts are hilarious and sometimes they are heartbreaking. Kids will relate to her eagerness to gain control over her world and applaud her spunk and determination to this end. Why is it that when a parent is unable to provide nurturing to a child, that is the parent's love that the child craves the most? Gertie is surrounded by loving and supportive adults, yet craves a relationship with her mother. Gertie's mother, for reasons we never know, is unable to mother her spirited offspring and Beasley does not offer a magical solution. Instead, Gertie learns to come to terms with the failed relationship and to appreciate the functional folks she does have in her life. Some of Gertie's choices and mishaps had me a bit on edge and the book was not as funny as it appears to be. Much like Ramona, Gertie's impulses and real-life situations are heart-breaking, but she learns from her mistakes and grows from these experiences. Gertie's teacher is especially understanding when the youngster messes up big-time and kids will learn that teachers are human too and care about all of their students equally, even when it feels like they like some more than others. Black and white illustrations, contributed by Jilian Tamaki, are well done and are interspersed throughout the book, yet not in every chapter. The book is for an older audience than the picture on the cover indicates and the subject matter is more serious than the description would lead readers to believe. Its a book with hidden depth that explores the confusing trials and tribulations of growing up.