Monday, January 25, 2016

Oggie Cooder

Oggie Cooder
Sarah Weeks
Scholastic, 2008
Grades 2-4  172 pgs.

Oggie Cooder is a likable guy from a small town. He marches to the beat of his own drummer and is not afraid to be himself in all things. Oggie's parents run the second-hand shop in town and he finds his mismatched clothes from within its racks. Even his dog is eccentric, shabby, and lovable. His neighbor across the street, Donnica, is Oggie's polar opposite. She is nasty, flashy, and determined to be famous, no matter who she steps on to get there. When a talent show for kids comes scouting for fresh talent, Donnica needs an original act. She notices Oggie "charving" (chewing processed cheese squares into the shape of states) and wants that talent. Donnica easily convinces Oggie to teach her how to charve and secretly plans to enter the contest. The day of the contest arrives. After a series of misadventures Donnica blows the audition, but the judges happen to notice the talents of unsuspecting Oggie and a star is born. Donnica quickly changes gears and appoints herself as Oggie's agent. She wants to turn Oggie into a sensation and, in turn, achieving fame for herself. Oggie initially enjoys the unexpected doors opening resulting from his new found fame, but is the price too high? Oggie must stay true to himself, even if it means making some tough choices that Donnica will not like.

From picture books to serious middle grade fiction, Sarah weeks is truly an eclectic author of children's literature. Oggie Cooder is a hilarious early chapter book offering that is just right for the intended audience. Comic-like illustrations generously decorate the pages, the margins are wide, and the vocabulary is controlled. Oggie's name is the only unfortunate choice. It is difficult for newly independent readers to pronounce. Weeks subtly offers a pronunciation at the beginning of the book, but it still may be an obstacle for some. Still, the name is perfect for quirky, lovable Oggie, who kids will instantly root for and wish to be his friend. Kids will also enjoy seeing Donnica get her "just desserts" as the pushy rich kid that everyone loves to hate. The message of the story is to be yourself and to give people that may be different from you a chance. Other themes include the corruption of the television industry, the price of fame, and that money does not necessarily buy you happiness. The invention of charving is intriguing and may have readers reaching for the Kraft singles. Fans of Stink and Ready Freddy are the natural audience and those who enjoy this book will also enjoy the sequel: Oggie Cooder: Party Animal.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Bone Gap

Bone Gap
Laura Ruby
HarperCollins, 2015  345 pgs.
Grades 9-Up
Printz Medal Winner 2016

Bone Gap is a small town that really exists in America. This novel focus on the strange happenings of a fictional group of individuals who reside within. Multiple points of view tell the story of Finn, a beautiful boy who suffers from face-blindness, His seemingly perfect older brother and guardian, Sean, and a mysterious young woman named Roza, who appears one day sleeping in their barn. Roza disappears one day and Finn is the only witness. Unfortunately, because of his condition, he could not see the identity of the man she left with. Sean, who is romantically involved with Roza, does not believe it was a kidnapping, feels betrayed, and does not join in the search that Finn has taken upon himself to find the missing woman. Meanwhile, Finn enters upon a budding romance with the town beekeeper's daughter, Petey, who is considered ugly by most standards and does not feel worthy or confident of Finn's attentions. It is Petey who figures out Finn's afflictions with face-blindness and helps him sort through his feelings about the town's perception of him and the disappearance of his friend. A beautiful horse mysteriously appears in the brother's barn and Finn and Petey enjoy magical midnight rides as their romance blooms. Finally, Finn confronts a neighbor and finds access to the mysterious land where Roza is being held captive. It is up to Finn to see through a sea of faces to find the one that matters in order to bring her back to Bone Gap.

Laura Ruby just received a Printz medal for this beautifully crafted and original novel. It reads like a modern day fairy tale, borrowing elements from mythology and folklore and placing them in a contemporary middle-America setting. Finn is misunderstood by both himself and those around them until Petey discovers his face-blindness, a real condition of which I was previously unaware. Through his relationship with Petey, as well as through the magical horse, Finn finds the courage to enter the underworld and rescue Roza, a feat which even his "super-hero" brother could not perform. This book reads like poetry. It is lyrical and magical. The fantasy is gentle and realistic to the general tone of the story. It feels like this could really happen. Ruby includes an abundance of symbolism, creating a book of layers which can be read on many different levels by different sorts of readers. Simplistic teen readers will find a great story to dig into, while more thoughtful readers, including adults, will enjoy picking this book apart. The characters grow and change and the story ends satisfactorily without saccharine. The person who's point of view specific chapters are told in has the name above the chapter title, helping to alleviate confusion about who's eyes we are seeing through. A beautiful book with a lot of substance, yet still a fun read. Most definitely deserving of the Printz win.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Timothy Failure: Mistake Were Made

Timothy Failure: Mistakes Were Made
Stephen Pastis
Candlewick, 2013  304 pgs.
Grades 3-7
Timothy Failure Series #1

Pastis follows the trend offering a comic/chapter hybrid walking in teh footprints as the widely popular "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" series. Timmy and his pet polar bear, Total, operate "Total Failure, Inc, a detective agency serving the young folks in town. Timmy's inability to solve cases doesn't seem to slow him down as he searches for clues, bumbles into situations, looses expensive equipment belonging to his mother, offends his friends, and drives his teacher's crazy. He is focused only on the detective business and puts zero effort into school work and other people's problems. In fact Timmy lives fully in his own reality, oblivious to the troubles of others, including his mother who is suffering financially and must downgrade their living arrangements. When one misstep after another leads Timmy to losing the agency and his partner Total, all seems hopeless. A dastardly plan involving his mother's dreaded boyfriend's beloved car and the house seeming belonging to his main competition and arch enemy brings the action to a thrilling climax, where Timmy crashes both literally and figuratively. Somehow, once the pieces fall back in place, Timmy comes out on top, agency restored, although downsized, and Total back home where he belongs, leading readers to the second installment in the series: Now Look What You've Done.

A bit more sophisticated than Wimpy Kid, Pastis follows the same basic format: seemingly child-drawn comics on every page helping to advance the story, wide margins, short chapters, humorous situations involving cringe-worthy moments. What Pastis brings to the table is an unreliable narrator, who is either the most creative child on the planet or certifiably insane. Or both. I can't decide if this book is hilarious or disturbing. Young readers, especially boys, will find it hilarious. Reading it as a grown-up I just wanted to get professional help for Timmy. As a detective he gets the wrong answer every time. His best friend Rollo, who is funny in his own right, always knows the answer, but Timmy disregards Rollo's opinions. Kids will love that they figure out the culprits before Timmy does. Timmy is fearless, not afraid of embarrassment, and could care less about things regular children are accountable for: grades and other people's feelings. Pastis lets the reader know in a sneaky way what is really going on, adding dimension to the story and training new readers to look beyond the surface of a book. His humor is sometimes blatant and sometimes subtle, but always there, offering something for everyone. The cartoon-like illustrations are plentiful and add to the story. Kids will love this book and will jump right into the next three installments in the series, the most recent of which was released last October. Personally, I would like to buy his long-suffering mother a much needed drink.

Monday, January 18, 2016

The Walls Around Us

The Walls Around Us
Nova Ren Suma
Algonquin, 2015  319 pgs
Grades 9-Up

Two narrators tell seemingly separate stories, eventually linked by a mutual friend and a seemingly supernatural experience. Amber is an inmate in a juvenile detection center for girls. Her narrative begins with a pivotal night when the facility loses power, the girls are surprisingly freed, and Amber encounters what appears to be a ghost. Violet is a gifted ballet dancer set to give her final performance before leaving home for Julliard. She is about to realize her greatest dreams, except they are tarnished by the memory of her former best friend who was convicted of murdering two fellow ballerinas three years earlier. What really happened that fateful day of the murder? What crime did Amber commit? Who is the ghostly girl Amber encounters and how are she and Violet connected. Suma slowly reveals answers as the story continues, building up to a huge crescendo by book's end and a final payoff. All the characters come together at the ending of the story, which ends with an unexpected and satisfying twist.

The Walls Around Us is a highly unusual and fresh novel for teenagers. The world's of both ballet and prison are drawn with all of their competitiveness, misery, and warts exposed. Suma shows the dark side of ballet; the warped feet, competition and nastiness between the dancers, and the need for a dancer to claw her way to the top. Violet is a fully draw, yet highly sarky and unlikable character. Amber, also fully realized, is also complex and not so nice. The most likable character of the story and the common denominator between the two narrators is Ori; Violet's former best friend and Amber's new cellmate. The story is mostly realistic. The fantasy is more supernatural in nature and is gentle and believable. This book is not a typical mystery, but so much of the plot is unclear and then slowly revealed that I think it could be classified as one. Many unknowns can be guessed at, but the surprise at the end really was a surprise for me and was very cool. The story ends happy-ish, yet not cheaply so and is fully satisfying. I usually hate endings of books, but loved the ending to this one. Girls are the natural audience for this book, but boys would like it if they gave it a chance. At best teens will find a hard-to-put-down suspenseful page turner. At worse they will be scared straight from doing anything to land them in juvie.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Fatal Fever

Fatal Fever: Tracking Down Typhoid Mary
Gail Jarrow
Calkins Creek, 2015  176 pgs
Grades 4-8

Jarrow traces the path of this deadly disease in the early days of the twentieth century. Typhoid, a result of bacteria being ingested by the body, was often the cause of poor sanitary conditions or food being prepared by a cook with the infection on his or her hands. Such was the case with Mary Mallon. Mallon was a typhoid carrier, although she had no knowledge of this, and passed the deadly disease onto many of the household members of the various places in which she worked as a cook. Jarrow presents a brief history of the disease and its devastation on the American population. She traces what is known of Mary and the process in which the health authorities tracked the disease to this particular cook and forced her into isolation against her will for the protection of the public. Beyond the tragic life of Mallon, the disease itself and its effect on American culture is examined. Finally, with the advent of vaccinations and antibiotics, typhoid is brought under control in developed nations, although still presents a threat to the third world. The lives of other carriers, as well as famous people stricken by this disease are included briefly. A timeline, bibliography, author's note, source notes, list for further reading and index round out this extensively researched volume.

This is the second book I've read about Typhoid Mary published in 2015 for, more or less, the same audience. Both are well researched, well written and contain much of the same information. Jarrow's account is a bit glossier and sensational. She focuses a bit more on earlier epidemics leading to Typhoid Mary's discovery. Jarrow presents a well balanced and highly readable account of the facts. The reader will sympathize with Mary's plight and see how she really didn't understand that she was infected. This leads readers to the ethical question of whether it was the right to isolate Mary on an island off of Manhattan away from society. Fatal Fever would be great for classroom use, non-fiction book reports, book discussion, and pleasure reading. Both non-fiction and fiction readers will enjoy it. There is enough science to keep the non-fiction lovers happy and enough of a linear plot to keep the fiction lovers entertained. Jarrow points out that typhoid is still out in the world and emphasizes the importance of diligent hand washing. An author's note tells of Jarrow's process and how she became interested in the subject in the first place; hailing from Ithaca, New York, the site of a devastating typhoid outbreak previous to Mary's capture. The text is supplemented by generous illustrations and period photos on practicaly every page and the book itself is carefully and beautifully designed. Science, history, health, and a great story all rolled into one.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

2016 Newbery Predictions

Okay, so its that time of year for the official Kate Nafz Newbery predictions. Kids often think I read every book in the library (they also think I sleep there, which some weeks it feels as if I do). Contrary to popular opinion, I do not read every children's book that come down the pike, so some years books win that I haven't gotten around to (like last year). And my predictions don't usually win. I correctly predicted Holes, When You Reach Me, The Giver  and The Graveyard Book. I still feel Wonder, Wonderstruck, and Rules were robbed. Here are in my humble opinion the best children's books that fit the Newbery criteria for 2016:

The Nest by Kenneth Oppel
This book was the best book for children to be released in 2015. So what its not technically eligible because Oppel is Canadian? The brilliant illustrator, Jon Klassen, is American, so that should balance everything out, except that we are not allowed to take illustrations into consideration, even if they are brilliant. So, my choice is ineligible on every level. Read it anyways, its deliciously creepy. In light of The Nest's ineligibility, I will declare the following book as my official Newbery Pick:

Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan
This title is my official prediction for the winner. Lyrical, layered, and emotional, Ryan manages to combine historical fiction with fantasy, intertwining four stories brought together by a simple harmonica and the power of music. Beautiful, haunting, and enchanting pepper with characters that you will feel like you know and grow to love.

Two Honor Predictions:

The Thing about Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin
Heartfelt story with a definite plot, all while demonstrating character growth. There is diversity among its cast and a non-traditional family. Beyond this, the book has a scientific element that will appeal to the current core-curriculum book culture in which we are currently residing.

Circus Mirandus by Cassie Beasley
Beautiful and haunting fantasy about a boy on a quest and the magical circus with the power to heal. This story is The Night Circus-lite in creating a circus where anything is possible and just finding the circus is an amazing magical miracle unto itself. The mood is dark and dreaming, yet conveys hope as the boy struggles to save his ailing grandfather with the power of magic.

Printz Prediction:

Dime by E.R. Frank
Beautifully written and heartbreaking, this tale narrated by a teenage prostitute lingers in the reader's conscious long after the cover closes. Not a fun book, but an important one with a powerful message, unforgettable well-developed characters, and a gripping story.

Friday, January 8, 2016


Tor Seidler
Atheneum, 2015  227 pgs
Grades 4-6
Animal Fantasy/Adventure

Maggie is a magpie, who marches to the beat of a drum different from her other magpie brethren. She hates her unimaginative name, does not respond to shiny clutter, and resents being stuck in a nest brooding eggs. Her best friend is an old crow named Jackson who teaches her about the ways of the world. After Jackson's tragic demise at the hand of a human with a gun Maggie befriends a lone wolf named Blue Boy. The two initially help each other out and then become inseparable. The story now becomes Blue Boy's, witnessed through the eyes of Maggie, who is always there co-existing with the new pack Blue Boy forms. Maggie describes the trip from the ranch lands of Montana to Yellowstone National Park, where Blue Boy defeats another pack and establishes a new territory for his crew. We eventually learn the backstories of Blue Boy and the other wolves as seasons change, new wolves are born, and the circle of life takes several lives. Blue Boy's first born son, Lamar, who is expected to inherit the pack, finds himself attracted to a female coyote, which is unacceptable in wolf-culture, just as Blue Boy's estranged brother rejoins the group leading to inner-tensions. Meanwhile, one of the other males in the pack is planning a coup for leadership. After a chilling near-death incident involving a park ranger it looks like the pack will be dispersed and Blue Boy overthrown. It is up to Maggie and nature to put things to rights and restore the peace previously enjoyed by this group of companions.

Seasoned author Seidler dedicates this novel to Newbery winning author Jean Craighead George, who first introduced him to and educated him about the wolves of Yellowstone. Seidler lets his love and respect of these magnificent creatures shine through as we travel along on their adventures. Personally, I'm not an animal lover and certainly never gave wolves a second thought. I became fascinated in these animals and now want to learn more. Establishing Maggie as a narrator offers a further dimension to the story and makes for a richer tale, elevating the book to a significant cut above the usual animal fare. The book is described as "animal fantasy", but besides from the fact that animals can communicate through language with each other and other species (and how do we know they don't) this is really a realistic adventure story. Seidler is able to establish a separate personality in all of the wolves, as well as the birds, and I was never confused between characters. Themes such as feminism, family loyalty, environmental preservation, gun control, and mixed-race romance are all touched upon, although all subtly depicted through wolf culture. The plot is exciting and moves quickly. The print is big and the margins generous. Kids will enjoy reading this book and it should be recommended to both animal lovers and adventure seekers. Both boys and girls will enjoy this book. There are truly heartfelt moments where the reader really gets emotionally involved with these wild creatures. A deceivably emotional, educational, and thoughtful read all wrapped up in an exciting page-turning package.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

My Diary from the Edge of the World

My Diary from the Edge of the World
Jodi Lynn Anderson
Simon & Shuster, 2015  416 pgs
Grades 4-8
Fantasy/Science Fiction

Come and explore alternate Earth as we read the journal of twelve-year-old Gracie. The world feels the same with the fast food restaurants and stores we are familiar with, yet is populated by mythical and dangerous creatures, such as dragons, yetis, krakens, and giants. Gracie lives in Maine with her parents and two siblings. The action begins as Gracie breaks her arm during a dragon migration and immediately the reader realizes that although the book feels like we are in the current world, something is not right. A black cloud swoops over Gracie's house indicating that someone in her family is going to die. Her brother has been sickly since birth and the family will do anything to save him. They all load into a Winnebago (with Gracie's schoolmate orphaned Oliver) and set off to the Smokey Mountains to elicit help from Gracie's estranged witch grandmother. Grandma sends them to California to try to find the "edge of the world", since the world is flat, which will lead them to the Extraordinary World, where there are no mythical creatures or black clouds (in other words: our world). The journey is dangerous since the wild is growing out and the creatures are destroying the roads and the family has many dangerous encounters along the way. At last they arrive in California, which is barely hanging onto civilization. Now they must hire an angel to protect them, as well as a ship willing to take them to the end of the world. Meanwhile, the cloud will not give up and relentlessly pursues them every step of the way. Gracie faithfully records all the adventures until their destination is reached and surprises await both the family and the reader.

This is a cool book. It falls under the category "smart kid fiction" and will be savored and devoured by said smart kids, who love books that spark their imagination. I label My Diary from the Edge of the World as both fantasy and science fiction. It is science fiction in that it is an alternate Earth and fantasy as it features mythical creatures. This book reminds me of American Gods by Neil Gaiman, a book for adults featuring creatures from folklore, although specific to our country, and an epic journey. The conception is great, the plot moves along nicely, offering surprises along the way, and the characters are realistic, developed, and likable. The big payoff comes at the end when the family and the reader finally reaches the end of the world and then encounters a further plot twist. Anderson next moves ahead six months at the very bitter end of the book, sewing everything up nicely for the reader and providing closure. I thought the bitter end portion cheapened what was a very well conceived book, but will make young readers happy. The good news is Anderson leaves nothing dangling forcing the reader to slug through two more titles. We definitely get closure. The book runs a bit long, but this will not scare the readership for this kind of story. The main character is a brave tom-boy and both male and female readers will relate to her and enjoy this story. My Diary from the Edge of the World is not for everyone, but is very original and adventurous and will appeal to kids who love to read and have big imaginations. 

Monday, January 4, 2016

The Cricket in Times Square

The Cricket in Times Square
George Selden
FSG, 1960  144 pgs.
Grades 3-6
Animal Fantasy/Classic
Newbery Honor Book 1961

Revisit Selden's classic animal/fantasy that was written over fifty years ago, yet still speaks to a modern audience. After chasing a scrumptious piece of liverwurst Chester Cricket finds himself in a picnic basket on a train from his country home to New York City. He escapes the basket only to find himself immersed in the hub-bub of Time's Square's subway station. It is here that he is discovered by Mario Bellini, who is working the late shift at his parent's newspaper stand. Mario is delighted with Chester and keeps him as a pet, much to his mother's reluctance. That night, long after the newsstand has been closed down, Chester meets Tucker the mouse and Harry the cat, fellow residents of the station, and the three become instant friends. Life moves along pleasantly for Chester, especially when Mario takes him to Chinatown, where they encounter a shopkeeper who recognizes the power and luck of crickets and sells a Mario a cage for his new friend. One fateful night after a blow-out celebration the three animal pals accidentally set the newsstand on fire. Much damage is done and all seems lost for the struggling Bellini family. Chester, already a budding musician, puts his talents to work copying songs playing on the radio. His talent attracts attention and before long he becomes a New York sensation and the newsstand is successfully making money. Chester is glad to help, but he misses the country and making music for the pure pleasure of it. What's a cricket to do? Find out in this heartfelt novel that has stood the test of time.

I always choose a classic for my January book group selection and this title is one of my favorites. I re-read it every five years or so for book group and it never ceases to entertain and delight me. Maybe because it was one of my favorite books from my childhood and serves as a "comfort read", maybe because its set in New York City (my favorite book location), or maybe because I'm a music lover, but regardless of the reason The Cricket in Times Square remains one of my favorites and I enjoy it with every read. Chester is such an earnest, honest, and likable guy. Tucker Mouse provides the comic relief and serves as the lovable, yet scrappy Artful Dodger who teaches Chester the ways of city life. Harry Cat teaches the reader not to make judgments about folks until you get to know them and that best friends can come from people of which we are culturally distrustful. The book is much like an urban Charlotte's Web, which was released a decade earlier. We have a sweet naive animal who is friends with a human child and is schooled in the ways of the world by a different older and wiser animal. The animal must save the day and say goodbye to a friend in one way or another by book's end. The two books also feel connected because both are illustrated by the talented Garth Williams. Williams illustrated many of my favorite childhood books, including the Little House on the Prairie series. His drawing are not only technically precise,but are cozy and child-friendly and enhance any book that they grace. One aspect of The Cricket in Times Square that has not stood the test of time is the depiction of minorities. The Chinese people in the story, as well to a lesser degree the Bellini parents, are all stereotypes reflecting the sensibilities of our culture during this time and place. That said, I applaud Selden for including new Americans and highlighting the melting pot which remains New York City. Chester's adventures continue in several sequels, so reader's have somewhere to go upon completion of this classic children's book. After fifty years, still a standing ovation!