Friday, April 29, 2016

The Passion of Dolssa

The Passion of Dolssa
Julie Berry
Viking, 2016  482 pgs
Grades 7-Up
Historical Fiction

Botille is a simple village girl living in medieval France at the time between the Albigensian Crusade and the Inquisition. She and her sisters manage a tavern in town and she makes extra money as a matchmaker. While journeying to another town on an errand for a friend, Botille encounters Dolssa, a holy woman and mystic. Dolssa claims to have an intimate relationship with Jesus and is being hunted down by a young friar for her heretical ways. Boltille is strangely moved by the young woman and smuggles her back to the inn where she and her sisters keep her safe. Once Dolssa is feeling better, she emerges from hiding and begins to help the villagers with their many illnesses and sufferings. She cures a neighbor's baby who is on death's doorstep, as well as various villages struck with fever, including Botille's own sister. The beer brewed by the sisters has never been as tasty as when Dolssa was living under their roof. Alternating chapters tell the story of the Friar who is on the hunt for Dolssa. After many encounters with various folks from all walks of life and dead-ends he is led to the village where, eventually, he discovers her whereabouts. A climax brings all the characters together and many of the key players are sentenced to death by burning. The pyre is set and the accused gathered. Will Dolssa's beloved save them? All is revealed, including an epilogue showing the aftermath of all of the main characters and the holy man who, fifty years later, discovers Dolssa's writings and pieces together the whole story, of which you have just read.

Berry, author of the stunning All the Truth that's in Me. offers another beautiful written and complex work, although very different from her breakthrough novel. Not much has been written for young people about this time period in world history (I never heard of the Albigensian Crusade) and most remain unaware of the religious fever and persecution of the time. Berry obviously did extensive research and fell into the language and culture of medieval southern France. The story itself is riveting and the plot moves with twists and turns along the way with a huge payoff at the end. The problem may be that it is too rich for young readers. The character names are confusing and the language is difficult to understand. Little is known about this time, so this also presents a problem for the uninitiated. Berry does offer an extensive glossary, character listing, explanations of the history of the time and place, a bibliography and additional reading. Unfortunately for me, I did not discover this until the end. I know that young readers get bogged down by introductions (I always skip over them), but maybe a note at the beginning letting readers know that help is available in the back would be useful. It is almost too beautifully written for the target audience, but at its core this book clearly is a young adult book. Though not for most teen readers, it will deservedly win awards and be best enjoyed by adults who read teen fiction. I know that I will never get both the story and the characters out of my head and feel as if I have gained something by wading through those almost 500 pages. Dolssa's passionate and direct relationship with Jesus is something that no longer exists in our world, except maybe by nuns, and it made me envy their faith, passion and commitment.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The BFG

The BFG
Roald Dahl
FSG, 1982  121 pgs
Grades 3-6
Fantasy/Humor

British orphan Sophie wakes up in the middle of the night during the "witching hour" by a disturbance outside her window. Much to her surprise, she spots an enormous giant blowing a trumpet into the windows of rooms containing children. The large creature spots Sophie and whisks her away to Giant Country. Once settled, they become properly acquainted. The giant's name is the BFG, which stands for Big Friendly Giant and friendly he is. The two become instant buddies and Sophie learns more about Giant Country society. The BFG is not the only inhabitant. Nine other giants reside here and they are all quite uncivilized and blood thirsty. They roam around the world at night hunting for human beans and gobbling them up. The BFG, on the other hand, is a "dream-blower". He collects dreams and blows them into children and, best of all, does not eat humans. The BFG is disgusted at his fellow giant's murderous ways and he and Sophie concoct a plan to stop them. The new friends head back to England, where they blow a dream into the Queen's head. When she wakes up she sees Sophie sitting on her windowsill and knows that the dream was true. Now the Queen invites both Sophie and the BFG to breakfast (no easy task entertaining a giant in Buckingham Palace) where the three brainstorm and eventually figure out a plan to thwart the evil giants. Its back to Giant Country, this time with the British military as back-up, and Sophie and the BFG must work together to save the day.

I am a longtime fan of Roald Dahl (what Children's Librarian isn't?) and am extremely excited about the release of The BFG, a major motion picture directed by Steven Spielberg, this summer. My third and forth grade book group is also excited and so we decided to read this title as our April selection in preparation for the movie. Its maybe the fifth time I have read this book and I still love it. Roald Dahl manages to infuse classic fairy-tale style fantasy with British humor in such a brilliant way that, although many have tried, no one can duplicate. He is the originator of "smart kid fiction" and a huge influence on so many current and important authors such as J.K. Rowling and Lemony Snicket. The BFG is classic Dahl: a hilarious and fantastic romp with fabricated words and outrageous situations. What really makes this title stand out is the vocabulary Dahl conceives for the BFG. What a mind that man must have had to conceive such an array of nonsense words such as Snozzcumber (the disgusting food that the BFG eats), whoopsy-splunkers (fantastic), and whizzpopper (a word sure to entice the potty-humor crowd). Because of the lack of formal education in Giant Country, the BFG is self-taught and often gets it wrong with hilarious results. His name for Charles Dickens is Dahl's Chickens, which ties in with the ending, when it is revealed that the BFG has written the book you have just read and used a pen name cribbed from his favorite author. It is a delicious little twist at the end of the book that will surely satisfy readers. One warning for parents: the story is a little creepy and violent, although the scary bits are stabilized by Dahl's humor, so if your child is particularly sensitive, this may not be the book for him or her. The BFG is a book that begs to be read aloud and has been by both parents and teachers for generations. The illustrations by the marvelous Quentin Blake add to the fun and help to propel the book along. The BFG has formally existed in movie form only in cartoon format. Now the technology is able to make the Big Friendly Giant come alive. I always go to see Roald Dahl film adaptations in the theaters, too excited to wait for video, and am generally disappointed. The movies tend to lose the humor of the books, making the story that much more scary. I have high hopes for The BFG movie, though, and hope that Spielberg will capture Dahl's magic and maybe add some of his own.

Friday, April 22, 2016

When Friendship Followed Me Home

When Friendship Followed Me Home
Paul Griffin
Dial, 2016  246 pgs
Grades 5-8
Realistic Fiction

Ben Coffin is a former foster kid, who was miraculously adopted by a kind, yet older, social worker. He and his Mom live in Coney Island, where he attends school with his sole friend Chucky Mull (aka Chunky Mold), get constantly hassled by the school bully, and retreats to the library, where he enjoys reading science fiction and the company of the kind librarian. He quite accidentally befriends the librarian's daughter, Halley, who is currently undergoing Cancer treatments and the two become fast friends.One day, when leaving the library, a grungy dog follows him home and Mom allows him to keep the mangy guy. Ben names his new friend Flip and the two become inseparable. Flip is smart and loyal and it is he who discovers a terrible tragedy which rocks Ben's world and forces him to begin again. Luckily, he has his old friendship with Chucky and his huge and loving family and his new friendship with Halley. Ben and Halley decide to train Flip to be therapy dog for children to read to in the library. They also decide to write a story together featuring time travel, science fiction, friendship, magic, and the Coney Island of yesteryear. Ben harbors a distrust of magic, stemming from a bad experience as a foster child and Halley's Dad, Mercurious, a professional magician, helps him work through his fear, rediscover the wonders of magic and find healing. Flip also offers comfort and healing as yet another tragedy strikes Ben's life and he has to pick up the pieces all over again.

This book begins with a breath-taking photo of Coney Island at night from 1905 followed by a quote from Yoda, so you know that this book will be special: and it does not disappoint. Griffin, an established teen author, pens this first novel for the middle grades. It reads quickly, moves along nicely without dragging, and adds plenty of plot twists and heart ache. 
I always say that there is no such thing as a perfect child or a perfect dog. Ben and Flip seem to be exceptions to that rule. Ben is such a sweet character that he seems almost too good to be true. He has gone through terrible times repeatedly, yet he remains kind, trusting, and generous. Flip, except for his bad breath, is a perfect dog, although that could be Ben's perception of him. Maybe with all of the unpredictability of Ben's life he hasn't felt secure enough to allow himself a temper-tantrum. At any rate, the reader won't care that Ben and Flip are practically perfect. They will fall in love with both of them and be cheering for their success and well-deserved happiness. Halley and Chucky are both interesting characters. The librarian in the story is a "superstar" and is instrumental in making a big difference in Ben's life. This of course I applauded, as well as the fact that books were both a comfort and a life-line to himself and Halley. I also loved the role of magic and Griffin's big reveal at the end of the "most magical thing of all". The adults in this story were both wonderful and flawed, but always present and part of the plot. Fault in Our Stars-light, this book will be the perfect choice for kids who enjoy sad books and my library hosts plenty of them. It would serve as a great title for kids who loved Wonder and are wondering what to read next. There is hint of romance, but it is innocent and takes a back-seat to the friendship. Friendship is at the core of the story, whether between humans or humans and animals. I feel like every other book I have picked up in the past year is set in Coney Island. My theory on this pattern is that Brooklyn is a Mecca for authors, so maybe they hang out there? Don't know, but it seems like more than coincidence. At any rate, When Friendship Followed Me Home is heartfelt, sad-yet happy, thoughtful-yet full of plot, more than just an animal story-yet features an adorable pooch and will be enjoyed by both boys and girls. In other words: a true winner that will make anyone happy if this book follows you home from the library!

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Study Hall of Justice

Study Hall of Justice
Derek Fridolfs
Dustin Nguyen (Illustrator)
Scholastic, 2016  175 pgs
Grades 3-6
Graphic Novel
DC Comics Secret Hero Society Series #1

The team behind Batman: Li'l Gotham and Justice League Beyond collaborate once again on this new series for children, sure to appeal to both the wimpy kid and superhero crowd. This series stars a young Bruce Wayne as he enters an elite private school where things aren't as they seem. He is constantly threatened and bullied, ninja appear camouflaged in the trees, class clowns constantly barrage students with vicious pranks, and teachers encourage violent and lawless behaviors. After several lonely and bewildering days, Bruce makes friends with Clark Kent, a seemingly innocent kid from the mid-west, and Diana, a visiting student from a Greek island. The three comrades work together to try to uncover the secrets behind their new school. The identity of the principal is the mystery at the heart of the book and his identity is revealed by book's end. Bruce, a commuter living alone with only his butler Alfred as his guardian, prefers to be a lone wolf. It takes him time to learn to trust his new companions and discover that he is stronger in a team. By the end of the story the dastardly intentions of the school are revealed and the institution is shut down. The three friends are sent back to their respective homes. A teaser on the last page suggests that Bruce will now be sent to an unknown summer camp where mysteries abound, offering a convenient lead to the next installment.


Not quiet a graphic novel and not really a chapter book The Secret Hero Society will appeal to readers who appreciate an unconventional format. The book is a hybrid of graphic panels depicting the plot, interspersed with memos, e-mails, Bruce's on-line journal, fliers, and documents from confidential files pilfered by Bruce. Some of the action is shown by panels of footage of the hall security cameras to show the reader what is happening without actual narrative. This makes for an unusual story that is sure to resonate with young people who enjoy comics and diary-style fiction. The story itself is creative and fresh, not sticking to cannon, which may annoy older readers, but shouldn't bother kids. Adding Wonder Woman as a character will help to welcome female readers and allow for both boys and girls to feel ownership of the series. The comics are drawn very loosely and felt unfinished to me at times. I am use to crisper drawings when encountering traditional super heroes, but the artists intent may be to offer a new take on these beloved characters, reflected in the non-traditional drawing style. The plot moves along quickly and evil lurks around every corner. Readers will enjoy seeing famous DC villains portrayed as students and will feel empowered getting the inside jokes on their identities. This series is circulating well in my library consortium and has been on the children's best seller list. It will be enjoyed by any young reader who appreciates comics and is a slam dunk for reluctant readers.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Nightbird

Nightbird
Alice Hoffman
Random House, 2015  195 pgs
Grades 4-7
Fantasy

Twig is a seemingly unremarkable young girl hiding a remarkable secret. Because of a family curse dating back to the Revolutionary War, the males in Twig's family are born with wings and the ability to fly. Twig and her mother live quiet lives in the country outside their small north-eastern town. Twig is not allowed to have friends or get involved with anyone on a personal level in order to keep the family secret: a sixteen year-old flying brother with wings who stays hidden by day in the attic and flies around with his owl friends by night. Twig's lonely life changes when a new family moves into the cottage next door, descendants of the witch who set the curse. The family has a girl Twig's age named Julia who becomes her instant best friend. Julia's older sister, Agate, discovers brother James' secret and a nocturnal friendship/romance blossoms. Meanwhile the townsfolk are determined to eliminate the "Sidwell Monster", who has been seen flying around, as well as committing various offenses. A mystery develops as to whom is placing threatening messages all over town to save the local owls as a wealthy landowner wants to build on the area's forest land. Twig finds allies in the town's historian and her nephew, a recent transplant hired by the local newspaper. The story rises to a crescendo the night of the town's annual play, re-enacting the dramatic story of the Sidwell witch and her curse. The mystery of the notes is solved, the true identity of the newspaper man is revealed and James' identity is exposed. Will the town accept him or attempt to banish him  (or worse)? Will James remain cursed forever? Read to the end of this magical tale to find out!

I am a long-time fan of Alice Hoffman. I love the fairy tale quality of her writing, which is mostly realistic, yet contains magical elements written in a way that are truly believable and digestible. Nightbird is true to her characteristic style, yet for a younger audience. This is not a magical land of high-fantasy. It is everyday, small-town America where a curse has allowed a young man to fly. It is up to his sister to keep his secrets and, eventually, find a way out of the curse. I love that the tale is told through Twig's eyes and not her flying brother's, adding dimension to the story. Hoffman does not reveal at first James' ability, building up to the big reveal, all while dropping hints that something is coming. Other plot twists follow, including the true identities of the newspaper man and the culprit who is leaving threatening messages around town. Twig is an awesome character who experiences growth throughout the story, including a name change by the end, symbolic of her new self. This is both a quiet and atmospheric story, yet contains enough of an interesting plot that young readers should enjoy it. The chapters are a bit long, but there are breaks every few pages. Twig's mother is a baker, using apples that can only be found in their special small town. Hoffman includes a recipe in the back of the volume, welcoming the reader to make one of Mom's specialties. Most people have had fantasies about flying (I know I have). Through Twig and James' story we can experience the awesomeness of flight and believe that it could really happen, if only you know a witch.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

The Westing Game

The Westing Game
Ellen Raskin
Penguin, 1978  216 pgs
Grades 5-9
Mystery

Sixteen seemingly unrelated people are hand-picked to move into the new Sunset Towers; a modern apartment building next to the Westing Estate. Eccentric millionaire Sam Westing disappeared under mysterious circumstances years before. The residents of Sunset Towers are very surprised when Westing suspiciously drops dead and they are all gathered together as heirs. The will divides the sixteen people into partnerships of two and each pair is given two one-word clues, along with hidden messages within the wording of the will itself. Each heir is awarded $5,000 with the entire fortune to be given as a prize to whomever can solve the identity of Westing's murderer. The heirs start scrambling to try and solve the puzzle, all while contending with blizzards, bombs exploding, and suspicions about their neighbors. Unexpected bonds are formed and the characters change in ways they (and the readers) didn't anticipate. Finally the heirs are gathered again to solve to mystery and to discover who won the game in a grand finale. One team uncovers the significance behind the one-word clues, but is the person exposed really the murderer? All is not as it seems, identities are revealed, lives are changed, and a winner emerges.

I first discovered the Westing Game when it was still a new book back in seventh grade. My school librarian gave it to me and said it just won a big award and would I please read it and let her know if it was any good. I thought it looked boring (at the time I was obsessed with problem novels by Judy Blume, Norma Fox Mazer, Go Ask Alice, etc) and babyish, but I loved my librarian, so I gave it a whirl. What followed was life changing. I loved this book so much. It opened a whole new world to me: that of clever mysteries. My mystery experience at this point was limited to Nancy Drew and the like. My librarian directed me to other great mysteries and I spent the following summer devouring Agatha Christie, discovering that reading could be exciting and not just a pleasant, yet passive experience. What was progressive for the 1970's may be passe in today's post Harry Potter climate. Does the book still hold up? After just finishing this thirty-eight year old book I offer a resounding YES! I was delightfully surprised at how great the book remains. The Westing Game is what I term as "smart kid fiction". Bright readers will enjoy the twists and turns of the plot, the little puzzles to solve as part of the mystery, and the subtle humor Raskin infuses. Fans of Lemony Snicket and Blue Balliet, as well as chess players, will fall into this book and breath a contented sign when it is over. The mystery isn't conventional and the clues that the players try to decipher do not lead to an actual solution, merely another clue as to the identity of Sam Westing, but there is a satisfying clear-cut winner. All of the characters exhibit growth throughout the story, especially the female ones and Raskin definitely has a feminist agenda. Some of the behaviors of the characters are a bit adult (of the sixteen plus characters, only one is a child) and the story itself is sophisticated for the average young reader. Children new to mysteries may have a hard time keeping the characters apart in their mind as they read, while others will relish the challenge. Raskin offers an epilogue which finds the characters all living "happily ever after lives". These type of epilogues usually bother me, but not in this case. It demonstrates how all of the players were effected by playing the Westing Game and they all were winners; just not of the big money. Sam Westing: kind philanthropist, or menacing manipulator; you decide.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Tonight the Streets are Ours

Tonight the Streets are Ours
Leila Sales
FSG, 2015  342 pgs.
Grades 9-Up
Realistic Fiction

Sales follows up her widely popular This Song Will Save your Life with a new tale of an unconventional romance. Arden feels that she loves other people more than they love her back. Her beautiful actor boyfriend takes her for granted, her best friend, Lindsey, constantly needs rescuing and her mother left the family several month ago, leaving her with a distracted father and needy little brother. In order to combat the boredom and frustration of her life, Arden begins to read an on-line journal/website of a boy names Peter called "Tonight the Streets are Ours". Peter traces the loss of his brother and the ups and downs of his relationship with his fabulous girlfriend, all under the backdrop of the lives of privileged teens of New York City. Arden becomes obsessed with Peter's life and finally, after a disappointing anniversary date, she and Lindsey leave for New York to find him. Miraculously, they track Peter down and what follows is a crazy and memorable night. Arden and Lindsey have a huge falling out at a wild Brooklyn party and Arden leaves her to be with Peter. After the initial luster wears off Arden realizes that Peter is not exactly as he presents himself on his website and that his readers only see one side of the story. She also comes to terms with her relationships and finds a healthy resolution for all of the dysfunction. We leave Arden older and wiser at college, no worse from her crazy New York City adventure, but changed for the better.

Tonight the Streets are Ours is a wild romp, much like Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist. Many small town teenagers will live vicariously through Arden's adventures and will relate to the universal problems and frustrations she faces with the various people in her life. Who wouldn't want to escape their troubles and run away to NYC for a crazy night? Especially when all turns out better in the end. This is not the stuff of great fiction or lasting importance, but it is decently written, reads quickly and is a lot of fun. Sales begins the book by claiming that its a love story--and it is to a certain point. Not a conventional love story, Arden does not fall in love with Peter as the book leads you to believe will happen. Instead, Arden learns to love and respect herself and develops functional relationships with her parents and best friend. Although I respect Sales for not turning the novel into a cheap "happily-ever-after" romance, the ends are tied up a little too neatly for my taste. Arden works things out with her mother a little too easily and everything gets fixed in the last twenty pages, but teenage readers appreciate a clean ending. I felt anger towards the adults in this book, but at least they were present and Arden forces them to take responsibility for their behavior. This is a book that will be devoured and enjoyed by teenage girls.There is no dystopian gloom and no one dies of Cancer, so for my money, its a winner!