Thursday, May 19, 2016

The Hero Two Doors Down

The Hero Two Doors Down
Sharon Robinson
Scholastic, 2016  202 pgs
Grades 3-6
Historical Fiction/Sports

Sharon Robinson, Jackie Robinson's daughter, pens a work of fiction for young audiences based on the real experiences of her family during the time that Jackie lived in Brooklyn and played with the Dodgers in 1948 & 1949. Our story is told through the eyes of eight-year-old Steve, a boy living with his parents in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood near Ebbets Field. Like most of his neighbors, Steve and his father are huge Dodgers fans. They carefully followed the 1947 season, when Jackie Robinson became the first African American professional baseball player and the new star of their beloved team. Steve is Jackie's biggest fan and his excitement is not to be imagined when the 1947 Rookie of the Year, Robinson, moves with his wife and young son just two doors down. He and his family become friends with the Robinson's and Jackie becomes a mentor to Steve, showing him how to control his temper. A birthday gift of Dodgers tickets for Steve's whole class seals the deal that they are friends forever. A misunderstanding over a Christmas Tree being gifted from the Robinson's to Steve's observant Jewish household brings tension to the friendship, but it is alleviated by tolerance and the sharing of cultures. Jackie and his family eventually move to Queens, but an afterwards by the author reveals to the reader the reality behind the story and that the friendship between the two families still continues to this day.

Robinson presents a very readable tale that is perfect for the target audience. The story remains linear and is easily followed. The struggles and prejudices experienced by Jackie and his family are certainly part of the story, but the book never gets preachy and it offers enough plot that kids will not feel as if they are being hit over the head with a message. Steve has struggles of his own and learns to control his impulses and righteous anger, much as Jackie learned to do over the years. There is enough baseball thrown in for sports lovers, enough mid-century Brooklyn for history lovers, and enough plot for story lovers. Jackie Robinson is an important American figure, who remained someone to emulate throughout his lifetime. This is a way for children to get to know this brave man of integrity and see that he is more than just a sports star. Beyond being exposed to the struggles of African Americans during the Civil Rights era, readers who may not be familiar with Jewish holidays and customs will also learn about this culture. Robinson includes a photo at the end of the book of Steve as a child and one of the two of them together today. This brings validity to the story and makes it that much more legitimate. Steve is very human, both in his passions and his shortcomings, and many children will relate to him as he lives out their dreams: living two doors down from a real-life hero. 

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Pax

Pax
Sara Pennypacker
Jon Klassen, Illustrator
Balzer & Bray, 2016  288 pgs
Grades 3-6
Animal Story

Although unspecified, our story appears to be set in near-future America. War rages through the land. Peter's Dad must go and serve in the armed forces. Since Peter's mom is dead, he is sent to live with a cold and unfamiliar grandfather. On the way to Grandfather's house, Peter must set his pet fox, Pax, loose in the woods to fend for himself. Once at Grandfather's house, Peter regrets the decision and runs away to recover his friend. Danger lurks in every corner and soldiers of both sides are everywhere. Peter injures his leg, forcing him to seek aid and shelter from veteran and post traumatic stress sufferer, Vola. The two become friends and help each other to heal and move forward with life. Meanwhile, alternating chapters tell the story of Pax's adventures. He meets up with a family of foxes in the wild and after a tricky adjustment period, they become friends and Pax learns to survive. The horrors of war are experienced more personally by the foxes, who suffer a loss in their ranks and then a devastatingly violent incident, all as a result of the war-sick humans. Both stories come together in the end when the friends are eventually reunited amidst the chaos that is war and the uncertainty of the wild.

Pennypacker offers a drastic departure from the Clementine series with a novel for slightly older children about the realities of war in a way that the intended audience can digest. We experience the mental anguish of war and regret through the story of the humans, Peter and Vola. The physical effects of war are demonstrated through the adventures of Pax and his new fox friends. Pennypacker does not shy away from the violence of war, yet physical losses are experienced through the foxes, somehow distancing the horrors a bit for young children without diminishing the realities. Peter must make some hard decisions and show inner strength and perseverance. He is battling guilt over letting Pax go and sadness at the absence of love from his family. He forms a new family with Vola and the two forge a relationship of mutual healing and understanding. Readers will be very effected by this book and animals lovers especially will read it quickly in order to ensure Pax's survival. The foxes for the most part remain foxes and Pennypacker did her research in creating a realistic environment for them. The only anthropomorphism was that they seemed to talk to each other and Pax had thoughts that were in human terms. This helped to move the plot along and help kids to relate to this story line, so I think it was appropriate. I love that puppets were used as a vehicle towards healing and the friendships that Peter shares with both Pax and Vola are truly moving. Setting the book in what seems to be very soon United States drives the point home that war isn't something that happens to other people far away. Its a universal problem and can arrive at anyone's doorstep. The illustrations by Jon Klassen were characteristically fabulous and his style match perfectly with the dark undertones of the text. A true winner and potential Newbery contender!

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The Great American Whatever

The Great American Whatever
Tim Federle
Simon & Shuster, 2016  276 pgs.
Grades 9-Up
Realistic Fiction

Sixteen-year-old aspiring filmmaker, Quinn Roberts, has not left his home in six months, nor has his mother. As the book progresses we find out why: his sister tragically died in a car accident the previous December and they are still not coping with the loss. Enter Quinn's best friend Geoff, who forces him out of the house and back into life. The first step is a new air conditioner. The second step is a college party, thrown by Geoff's sister, where Quinn meets a cute guy. Quinn knows that he is gay, yet has not officially come-out to his family and friends. As the flirtation with Amir (Quinn's new crush) turns to something more, Quinn finally faces some hard truths about his life and his family and slowly reveals to those around him his true sexual orientation. Unable to make films since his sisters, who was also his creative partner, died, Quinn sees his life in script form, yet has no desire to continue with his life goal of film making. It takes the return of a childhood hero, the disillusion of first love, and the truth behind who his sister really was, as well as alleviating himself of the responsibility of her death for Quinn to finally find the courage to move on and return to following his true passion.

This is my new favorite book: once I started reading it I found it impossible to put down. Federle puts his own spin on the very popular "dead-girl fiction" genre in a serious, yet funny (or seriously funny) offering. Known for his "Nate" series, Federle now turns to an older audience, moving from a Broadway-bound wanna-be to an inspiring screen writer. What both books have in common is a lovable protagonist who does not fit in a heterosexual manly-man box and brilliant comic timing. How can a book about a teenager struggling with the death of his closest family member, in addition to the loss of his father, living with an agoraphobic and mentally struggling mother, reluctance to reveal his sexual preference, and six months of school absence and total reluctance to move forward with life be funny?  It just is. Quinn is an awesome character, smart and witty with such a sparkly personality that the reader wants to befriend him. Yet, Quinn is also self-absorbed and makes frustratingly poor decisions, which humanizes him to the reader. Yes, Quinn falls in love for the first time during this summer of healing, but the book is more than a love story. It is about all of live's relationships, growing up, and coming to terms with those we love; warts and all. The romance ends far from "happily ever after", which I appreciate, yet leaves Quinn wiser and more confident in the process. He learns to see life through the eyes of people other than himself and to let go of the guilt he harbors over his sister's death. Quinn is on the road to healing with a future ahead of him and, although he has a ways to go, the reader is hopeful that he will get there.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Milo Speck, Accidental Agent

Milo Speck, Accidental Agent
Linda Urban
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015  259 pgs
Grades 3-6
Fantasy/Adventure/Humor

Milo lives a very hum-drum life. His mother is gone, Dad is away a lot on business, and he is left in the care of cold and strict "Grandmother", a babysitter provided by Dad's company. One day he falls into his clothes dryer while attempting to retrieve a sock and is pulled out into a new land on the other side by an ogre. He has landed in Ogregon, a place where children are considered a rare and tasty delicacy. He is taken by the repair ogre to the Home Office, where he discovers his father's boss, Mr. Tuckerman, being held captive by the simple minded, yet huge and dangerous ogres. At a quiet moment Milo helps Mr. Tuckerman escape. Imagine his surprise when he discovers that Mr. Tuckerman is really his young daughter Tuck. Further surprises reveal that Milo's father is actually an agent for the same agency that Tuck works for and often is away on missions in Ogregon. Tuck and Milo manage to escape, only to land in one tricky predicament after another. As their adventure continues they encounter Milo's father, a hoard of gigantic turkeys, an agent who is really working for the other side, other captured children, and various ginormous, yet simple minded, ogres. Milo becomes "deputized" as an agent and must become an intricate part of the team if they are ever to escape this dangerous land and get home again to safety.

Milo Speck is a departure for Linda Urban who is known for writing thoughtful novels for middle grade girls (A Crooked Kind of Perfect, The Center of Everything).This madcap and fantastical adventure will appeal to reluctant readers, especially boys and for a slightly younger audience than for whom she usually writes. The action never stops, as Milo and Tuck find themselves in one ridiculous predicament after another. The ogres are large in size, yet small in smarts, allowing for a less than scary villainous portrayal and many humorous moments as our two heroes manage to outwit them again and again. Generous cartoon illustrations (by Mariano Epelbaum) pepper the text, also adding to the fun and lightening the mood. Throw in giant turkeys and mismatched socks and you have a winner. Reading this book is a bit like watching the Cartoon Network and it doesn't always make logical sense, but kids won't care. They will lap up Milo's adventures and look at their dryers in a new way. Give this to kids who have graduated from Dragonbreath, but are not quite ready for Harry Potter or Gregor the Overlander or those who prefer their fantasy light and a little silly.


Monday, May 9, 2016

Raymie Nightingale

Raymie Nightingale
Kate DiCamillo
Candlewick, 2016  263 pgs
Grades 4-6
Realistic Fiction

DiCamillo revisits the Florida of her childhood in the 1970's in this new middle grade novel written in the tradition of Because of Winn Dixie. Raymie's father has just left her and her mother and run off with a dental hygienist. In order to lure him back Raymie decides to win the Little Miss Central Florida Tire pageant. Once he sees her victory in the paper he will realize how wonderful she is and come home. To bring this scheme to fruition Raymie begins baton twirling lessons from an aging former champ. Her two fellow students include tough-girl Beverly and frail Louisiana. Both girls have family secrets of their own and both plan on participating in the pageant, although with different motivations for doing so. The three girls become friends, more out of circumstance than anything else, and dub themselves the Three Rancheros. The Rancheros go on a mission to rescue Raymie's library book from underneath a creepy old woman's bed in a nursing home after which their bond is sealed. The next mission to is rescue Louisiana's cat, who was left in an animal shelter. This midnight scheme does not go exactly as planned, but forces all the girls to work together and rely on their strengths. Raymie uses skills that she never thought she would have to rely on and taps into her inner courage to save a friend. This episode lands the Rancheros in both trouble and in glory, forcing their adults to see them in a new light and to bring the three broken families some much needed healing.

Well, you have to hand it to Kate DiCamillo. Her title as last year's ambassador for Young People's Literature was well earned as she really knows how to write an amazing book for children. This latest book revisits the mood, place, and time of Because of Winn Dixie, yet is entirely different in plot and character. Tightly written, every word counts, and plot points are all significant and come together by book's end. This is a quiet story, yet a lot happens and it is never boring. The characters are all highly developed and the adult characters are significant and flawed, yet supportive at crucial moments. The book is set in the 1970's, but I would not consider it historical fiction. Beyond the baton twirling lessons, which I don't think kids learn anymore, and the absence of social media, the novel feels like it could be set in today's world. The problems and emotions of the characters are universal and are struggles that young people in our current society face. Because of an absence of male characters, this story is a little less accessible to boys than Because of Winn Dixie, which features the Dewberry brothers, as well as other male characters. Themes include loyalty and friendship, the healing power of animals, dealing with loss, and finding your inner courage and what makes you special. When finishing Raymie Nightingale I let our a sigh of contentment, which to me is an indication of a great story. Will DiCamillo win another Newbery for this offering? Only time will tell. It certainly is a contender and worthy of the title.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

The Last Kids on Earth

The Last Kids on Earth
Max Brallier
Douglas Holgate, Illustrator
Viking, 2015  227 pgs
Grades 3-7
Science Fiction/Adventure/Humor

Jack Sullivan, former foster kid and wanna be Indiana Jones, finds himself alone trying to survive after a zombie apocalypse in this fiction/comic hybrid. One day zombies wandered into Jack's small town and began taking over. They were shortly followed by monsters of whom Jack has interesting names for and is become adept at battling. Day to day survival is tough, between finding food, fighting monsters, and the loneliness Jack feels in his tree house home is nearly as hard to take as basic survival. Finally, after fixing his walkie-talkie, Jack reconnects with his science-nerd best friend Quint. Quint also moves into the tree house and helps Jack to soup it up with technological advances. Next to the team is Rover, a lovable, yet gigantic dog/beast. Jack and Quint power-up a monster truck perfect for post-apocalyptic survival and name it Big Mama. It is while cruising around in Big Mama that the boys encounter class bully, Dirk Savage. After teaming up to battle a flying monster, Dirk joins the team. One day, while cruising past their former middle school, the boys encounter Jack's crush: June Del Toro. It is Jack's dream to rescue June and now is his chance. After outrunning a Zombie Ball our heroes finally get to June, only to discover that she doesn't need rescuing. June is doing just fine on her own, but she is also lonely. June agrees to team-up with Jack and company and move into the tree house, only now they must get past Jack's nemesis, super-monster Blarg, in order to escape the school and return to the tree house to safety.

Apocalyptic fiction has been all the rage in teen literature for several years now and this trend has filtered down to middle readers. Brallier packages this genre for the Wimpy Kid set in this fiction/comic hybrid, brimming with laughs, fighting, and potty humor. Brallier perfectly captures the voice of a hip young tween and Jack's first person narrative is both believable and highly entertaining. This book reads quickly with action and cartoons on every page. Brallier has extensive experience writing for the Cartoon Network and that serves him well in producing quickly paced and humorous stories that kids will enjoy. Holgate, a seasoned cartoonist, contributes fully realized and entertaining illustrations that assist in propelling the plot. Zombies are hot right now (I had a four year old in story time who claims to watch The Walking Dead) and then throwing crazy scary monsters on top of this will be impossible for young readers to resist. The cast is diverse and including a fierce female character makes the book accessible to girls as well as boys, who will be the natural first audience. What kids hasn't fantasized about living in a souped-up tree house with no parents? The end of the world has never been cooler. Are these four tweens really the last kids on earth? This remains to be seen. They do appear to be the last kids in their small town. Maybe the answer will be revealed in the sequel: The Last Kids on Earth and the Zombie Parade, due for release September, 2016.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Red Queen

Red Queen
Victoria Aveyard
HarperCollins, 2015  288 pgs
Grades 7-Up
Fantasy/Adventure
Red Queen Series vol. 1

Seventeen-Year-Old Mare lives in a society governed by blood color. Mare is a "Red" (human with red blood) and the lower form of society with no rights , freedoms, or money. The "Silvers", besides carrying silver blood, boast supernatural abilities that give them an advantage over the Reds and serve to keep them oppressed. The country has been at war for many years with Red soldiers being forced by the Silvers into military service to fight their war with a high risk of death. Mare meets a strange man who turns out to be a Silver prince undercover named Cal. Cal arranges for Mare to become a servant at the Silver castle where, after a potentially deadly encounter, Mare pulls lightning out of nowhere and saves herself. Unsure of what to do with her, the royal family claims Mare to be a lost Silver princess and betroths her to Cal's younger brother Maven. She and Maven become great friends and her feelings for her fiance grow, as she battles an attraction to Cal, as well as struggling with feelings for her hometown companion who is now a member of the rebel group the "Scarlet Guard". Maven and Mare share ideas about the unfairness of the current regime's government and make connections to help the Scarlet Guard. Meanwhile, Mare's training ensues, both in etiquette and in using her new found powers. Finally, an important ball is planned and Mare and Maven with the Scarlet Guard decide the time has come to make their move. The plan does not come off as hoped and chaos and loss of life ensues. Mare is forced to confront her decisions, all while finding out the true motivations of those she trusts the most. Mare has betrayed people, just as others have betrayed her. All of the feature players motivations are revealed by the stunning conclusion and a dramatic action sequence at the end leads us to the aftermath and the next title in the series: Glass Sword.

The desperation of The Hunger Games meets the glamour of The Selection in this dystopian bestseller for teens. Aveyard knows how to write for teenagers. The action never stops in this fully realized civilization, which serves as a reflection of our own past, substituting class distinction from the color of skin to the color of blood. Although the dystopic survival is not new, the setting and concept is and Aveyard offers a fresh take on the genre. The prerequisite love triangle is there, although stepped up allowing Mare to struggle between three suitors (turning it into a love square?). Mare and the rest of her friends and enemies are not particularly well developed, but its really not that kind of book, so it doesn't so much matter. Mare is brave and fearless (and probably stunningly beautiful judging from her number of suitors) and any readers will want to be her. What really sells this book is the plot. The story is finely crafted and charges along at a rollicking pace with major surprises lurking around every corner. There are many plot twists that will serve to keep even the most reluctant reader turning pages and it never drags or gets boring. The romantic elements are not overwhelming and Mare is a fierce character, so although this series will appeal more to girls, boys will like it too. It is almost impossible not to run and grab the second title in the series after reading the first. Red Queen is a sure-fire hit and will be enjoyed by both serious readers of fantasy and reluctant readers new to the genre. My only question is: when is the movie being released?