Thursday, June 30, 2016

The Weight of Water

The Weight of Water
Sarah Crossan
Scholastic, 2012 211 pgs
Grades 6-8
Narrative Poetry

Free verse poems tell the story of Kasienka as she and her mother travel from Poland to England searching for Kasienka's father who left two years earlier to seek his fame and fortune. We see through her eyes the immigrant experience and the struggles of fitting into a new school. At first Kasienka is placed in sixth grade, even though she is almost thirteen, because she does not speak English. After midyear testing the teachers realize their mistake and move her to the proper grade, where she gets bullied by a nasty girl named Clair and her entourage. The home front is not much better. Kasienka and her mother are squeezed into a tiny studio apartment where they must sleep in the same bed and share a bathroom with a neighbor. Their neighbor, a former doctor from Kenya, becomes a friend and instead of only a bathroom, they begin to share meals and laughs. It is he who locates Dad and reveals to Kasienka his whereabouts. Dad has moved on with his life and does not wish to be reunited with Mama. When Mama faces this reality her life becomes hopeless and Kasienka is powerless to fix the situation. Meanwhile, the social situation at school escalates. It is through swimming, a first romance with an eight grade boy, and a new friendship with a fellow newcomer that Kasienka finds solace.

Beautiful and lyrical narrative poems tell the story and struggles of Kasienka, as she attempts to make sense of a new land and changing family dynamic, all while experiencing the pains of adolescence and growing up. Because of the structure of the telling, through the poetry we feel Kasienka's emotions and experiences vividly and see life for a little while through the eyes of a Polish girl trying to make sense of a whole new world. This book is packed with emotions, yet reads quickly and is rather short. It would be a good choice for reluctant readers and would work well for classroom use. The romance is rather innocent, yet is heartfelt and will resonate with readers. Kasienka's mother is one of those characters I find frustrating: a mother so caught up her in own problems that she is unable to properly mother, but by the end she has experienced some healing and Crossan leaves us with hope for this relationship. Through swimming, her few positive relationships, and working through her problems Kasienka gains confidence and by book's end manages to stand up to the bully, ending the story on an optimistic note. Even though this book is set in the UK the immigration experience is very translatable and relevant to American children. Maybe after reading it middle school kids will be kinder to that new face in the classroom, looking around bewilderingly for a friend. The Weight of Water was given to me as assigned summer reading from my eighth grade daughter. She loved the book and felt personally touched by the story enough to force me to read it. based on this recommendation I feel that the book speaks to young teenagers and will find an audience.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The Million Dollar Shot

The Million Dollar Shot
Dan Gutman
Hyperion, 1997 114 pgs
Grades 3-6
Sports/Realistic
Million Dollar series #1

Eddie Ball loves basketball. He and his best friend Annie love to shoot baskets and play HORSE by the small court in their trailer park. When the Finkle Foods Company announces a poetry contest with a chance to shoot a free throw and win one million dollars Eddie is eager to enter, even though he is against the company since they laid-off his mother and Annie's father. Annie helps him to write the poem and he enters. Imagine his surprise when his poem is selected and he is chosen to attend a Knicks game in New York City and shoot the million dollar basket. Annie's father, a former basketball player, become's Eddie's coach and teaches him how to throw foul shots using the best form and without letting distractions get the best of him. Just when Eddie's chances look promising, someone starts sending him hate letters and trying to sabotage his practices. Is it Mr. Finkle? The owner of the company sends a spy to check out Eddie's performance and he is visited by Finkle himself, who offers him a deal for missing on purpose. Eddie refuses to be bribed and before he knows it he, mom, Annie, and her father are traveling to New York for the contest. He gets to go to the Knicks' locker room and meet some of his heroes and then sit in a private box with the Finkle family. Finally halftime arrives and its his big moment. Will Eddie sink the shot? Will he and his mom get out of financial ruin? Is that a developing romance between Mom and Annie's dad? Read the book and find out!

I love Dan Gutman. He has written an vast amount of books for young people and knows what they like, especially reluctant readers. Some of his series include My Weird School and The Baseball Card Adventures. This particular series involves a kid winning a chance to make a shot, goal, putt, or kick with the prize of a million dollars. What kid doesn't fantasize about that? In this installment Eddie and his mom are in tough financial times and could really use the money. Gutman empowers Eddie with the ability to help his mom and make things right. The cast is refreshingly multicultural (Annie and her father are African American), even before the current cry for diversity, and Gutman places both main characters in non-traditional families where they become a new unit of sorts. The Million Dollar Shot is more than a sports book. Other themes include losing friends, the courage it takes for a boy to be friends with a girl, healthy verses unhealthy chemical-filled snacks, and making difficult choices with honesty and integrity. When Finkle tries to blackmail Eddie into purposely losing the contest he confides his dilemma to his mother, who gives him good advise, which shows children that parents can be trusted allies. This book reads quickly and is a comfortable level and length for the intended audience. It is almost twenty years old, which is hard to believe, and therefore is pre-Wimpy Kid, containing no illustrations, which will be a good transition for children to slightly more challenging reading. Eddie lives out many children's fantasies, including visiting the Knicks locker room and fixing his family's troubles financial situation, in this very readable and enjoyable book for young readers. 

Monday, June 27, 2016

Be Light Like a Bird

Be Light Like a Bird
Monika Schroder
Capstone, 2016 239 pgs
Grades 5-8
Realistic Fiction

Our story begins with roadkill. First person narrator Wren finds a dead squirrel on the side of the road, pulls out a trowel she keeps in her backpack and begins to bury it, revealing first that this is something that she does on a regular basis and secondly that she recently lost her father in a plane accident. Since the accident her mother has behaved strangely: distant, cold, and self-absorbed. She burns or trashes all of Dad's belongings, throws Wren in the car and moves them out of state. After finding two jobs and starting Wren in a horrible new school, she meets an older man and enters into a clandestine relationship. When the relationships fails, she packs Wren up and repeats the cycle. Finally at the top of Michigan Wren convinces Ma to stop in the town of Pyramid. Wren immediately connects to the town and finds a job and a new friend at the local health food store. When starting sixth grade, yet again, Wren is befriended by popular mean girl, who is using her for her math abilities. When Wren is paired with class nerd Theo on a project she is less than thrilled. To her surprise, she and Theo have a lot in common including the loss of a parent, grieving and emotionally distant remaining parents, an interest in bird watching, and the need of a friend in whom to confide and trust. Their friendship solidifies as they become involved in saving a local wetland, where they both enjoy going to watch birds and the mean girl's father wants to develop. Through her work on the project, her new friends, and the gift of time, Wren begins to heal and mature. Eventually she breaks through to her mother and learns that no one is perfect, even adults that we respect, and sometimes situations are not simply black and white.

A lot happens in the 239 pages in this book. So much that even though the story packs an emotional punch and deals with many ethical issues, the plot moves along swiftly and it never drags or gets boring, as many heartfelt stories tend to. Keeping the book in the first person will allow readers to identify with Wren and experience her struggles and emotions right along with her. The book begins very sad and it seems like no one is there to help Wren out and to validate her grief. I found myself cheering for this character, wishing firstly that she gets to stay in Pyramid, and then that she makes a friend, and then that she stands up to the bully and stops being afraid of being friends with Theo, and then finally that the mother snaps out of it and connects with her. All of those things happen, which will leave the reader letting out a sigh of relief again and again as they turn pages. I have kids that come into my library looking for "sad books". This one will totally fill the bill, but will leave the reader with a feeling of optimism, hope, and healing by book's end. Although Wren is girl, both boys and girls will relate to this story and it would work well for both school use and book discussion. There are many themes that come to light including protecting the environment, standing up to bullies, the power and peace of bird watching, kids can do big things, and to be "light like bird, not a feather" and control your own destiny.. The adults are flawed, yet present and helpful. I love the librarian character, who is very cool, treats kids with respect, and saves the day in the end with the power of knowledge. Other characters are also well developed and interesting. Give this book to fans of Counting by Sevens and The Thing about Jellyfish.
 

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Stick Dog

Stick Dog
Tom Watson
HarperCollins, 2013 192 pgs
Grades 2-6
Humor
Stick Dog series #1

Our narrator is an amateur cartoonist who claims to be terrible at drawing. He draws stick dogs instead of people and offers an original story on notebook-lined pages about his muse's adventures. In this first installment in the series Stick Dog and his buddies Poo-Poo, Mutt, Stripes (who is actually spotted), and Karen smell a wonderful smell from their home in an abandoned pipe under a bridge. Its the smell of hamburgers in a near-by park. Naturally the dogs are drawn to the source of the smell and after an initial distraction by a treed squirrel find a human family preparing for a BBQ. Immediately the team goes into planning mode on how to get their hands on the coveted burgers. One dog after another offers a hilariously terrible and inconceivable plan, all while giving the reader glimpses into their pasts, until Stick Dog diplomatically comes up with a solution. The four other dogs provide crazy distractions, sure to elicit giggles, while Stick Dog is suppose to steal the goods. All goes according to plan until the family reacts in a way that stops Stick Dog in his tracks. The ending may not be according to the dogs' plan, but will prove to be satisfactory to both the cast of characters and the reader. Four other adventures await Stick Dog and his pals and a companion series, Stick Cat, was launched last month.

I put off reading Stick Dog because, well, it seemed kind of stupid. I thought this was another fiction/comic hybrid published to hop aboard the Wimpy Kid train. Because of the popularity of the series and the advent of the companion series, I finally broke down. Is Stick Dog the stuff of great fiction? Uh, definitely not. Did I laugh out-loud throughout the whole book? YES! This was a truly funny story, gently sarcastic, yet mindful of the target audience and never over their heads. I was expecting more potty humor and was pleasantly surprised that the author did not rely on the cheap laugh and wrote a truly clever, yet plot-driven and linear story.The cartoon illustrations, based on the original sketches by the author, were created by Ethan Long, one of my favorite illustrators, and are simple, yet convey meaning and add to the hijinks. Reluctant readers will tear into this book and it will be enjoyed equally by both boys and girls. It reads quickly with wide margins, large print and breaks between paragraphs. Even though the book appears to be a bit of fluff, their is some deceptively advanced vocabulary that will encourage readers to broaden their reading skills. Recommended for kids growing out of Captain Underpants but not quite ready for Big Nate or Wimpy Kid or anyone who needs a good laugh.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Wishing Day

Wishing Day
Lauren Myracle
HarperCollins, 2016 313 pgs
Grades 5-8
Fantasy

Natasha is the oldest of three sister who are merely a year apart in age. Their mother left when Natasha was only five and now they are being raised by two aunts, while their father continues to grieve and exist "checked-out" of life. In the small town in which the girls live there is a magical willow tree. It is called the "Wishing Tree" and girls on their thirteenth birthdays are granted three wishes when standing under its branches. Natasha is taken by the aunts on her thirteenth birthday and makes the following wishes: for her Mother to still be alive, to be kissed by a boy, and to be somebody's favorite. The wishes are made and at first nothing seems to change, but then mysterious notes start appearing for Natasha. She has no idea who they are from, but they seem to indicate that she is actually somebody's favorite. Can they be from her crush, popular-boy Benton? As Natasha's seventh grade year progresses she finally gets that first kiss, although not from where she initially suspected. Her relationships with her sisters and bossy best friend grow and deepen as Natasha develops in both maturity and confidence. An encounter with the town's eccentric "Bird Lady", who keeps popping up throughout the book, seems to have some answers for Natasha concerning the fate of her mother, but Myracle keeps that plot-line unresolved, leading readers to the next installment in the trilogy.

Myracle is a master at writing books that middle school girls will devour. She is a very popular author and manages to capture the voice and feelings of adolescent girls perfectly. Usually writing contemporary realistic stories, Myracle wanders into the territory of magical realism/light fantasy, along the lines of Alice Hoffman or Lisa Graff, while still keeping her pulse on the hopes and dreams of young girls. The premise of the Wishing Tree is cool and the realistic friendship/sibling relationship story-lines will connect to most readers. The mystery of the identity of the secret admirer will keep readers turning pages and the first kiss is satisfyingly awkward, humorous and sweet all rolled into one. The Bird Lady character doesn't quite jell with the rest of the story, but maybe she will make more sense as the trilogy unfolds. At times the book drags and it feels a little longer than it needs to be.  I think most girls will be envious of Natasha and her wishing tree. I could have used such a thing at thirteen and it will inspire many readers to imagine what their own wishes would be. Myracle explains in an author's note how she longed for something magical to happen when she was thirteen. I felt the same way. I know my daughter was very disappointed when that owl never arrived inviting her to start her term at Hogwarts. Even though you get to a certain age and realize magic isn't real, it is fun to wonder "what if?" First in a projected trilogy, it seems that Myracle will focus on the wishing day of each sister in turn and, eventually, solve the mystery of the mother's whereabouts.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Wolf Hollow

Wolf Hollow
Lauren Wolk
Dutton, 2016  291 pgs.
Grades 4-7
Historical Fiction

Eleven-year-old Annabelle is growing up on her family's farm in rural Pennsylvania during World War II. Her predictable life gets shaken up when a new girl named Betty enters her one-room schoolhouse. Betty is a bully of the worst sort and a liar to boot. She threatens Annabelle using her brothers as bait in exchange for money. Annabelle is undecided as to how to handle the situation, which escalates as her best friend looses an eye at the hand of a carefully aimed rock, thrown by Betty. Betty twists the situation around, blaming a mentally damaged WWI veteran, Toby, who squats in the family's abandoned smokehouse. When Betty disappears, folks from the community point fingers at Toby. Annabelle knows that he is innocent and that Betty was most likely hurt while causing trouble. She cleans Toby up, dresses him in Grandpa's castoff clothes, and hides him in the barn. Her plan next involves Toby joining the rescue efforts. Annabelle has a sudden revelation of where Betty is and sends Toby and the rest of the rescuers to save the day. Betty is found and retrieved by Toby from the bottom of an abandoned well and both Toby (who introduces himself by his last name) and Annabelle are heroes. Despite being rescued and under doctor's care, the worst possible outcome finds Betty and the small community becomes passionate about capturing Toby and punishing him for what they think are his misdeeds. Annabelle concocts a new plot to get Betty's friend to reveal Toby's innocence, but is she too late to save him?


To Kill a Mockingbird meets The Walton's in this step back into America's rural past. Wolk bases this tale on the childhood stories of her mother and the authenticity comes through in her writing. The reader truly experiences what farm life was like during this pivotal time in our history. Wolk nails Annabelle's voice and allows her to be a realistically flawed hero that kids will both emulate and relate to. Even though the main character is a girl, boys will enjoy this story and the beautifully designed cover is neutral, inviting both sexes to the party. Annabelle does not have an easy life. Unlike today's children she is expected to do serious chores and contribute to the family. She lives before televisions were introduced into the homes of Americans and communicates on a phone with a party line and a nosy operator. Through it all, she has a loving family and a happy life. Facing adversity and moral dilemmas once Betty moves to town, Annabelle rises to the occasion and follows her moral compass, even when doing the right thing is the tough choice. Many ethical themes are brought to light in this novel including the importance of honesty, the painful motivation of bullies, PTSD and the plight of the veteran, family unity, loyalty, and making the right choices, even when it is hard. The story is craftily told, offering a swiftly moving plot and twists and turns along the way. It will be useful for teachers, as well as enjoyed recreationally. Give to fans of The War that Saved My Life and Jennifer Holm.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Dragon Masters: Rise of the Earth Dragon

Dragon Masters: Rise of the Earth Dragon
Tracey West
Graham Howells, Illustrator
Scholastic, 2014  90 pgs.
Grades 2-4
Fantasy
Dragon Masters Series vol. 1


Young Drake is pulled off his family's onion farm by soldiers and taken to serve the king. Once at the castle a wizard named Griffith greets him with a big surprise: Dragons really do exist and Drake, along with three other children, have been chosen to train a dragon for the King's service. The other young people are already ensconced at the castle and introduce their respective dragons, who are all much flashier than the mud color dragon assigned to Drake. He names his charge Worm, a fitting name for this Earth Dragon's personality and appearance, and the two instantly bond. Drake can feel his necklace, given to him by Griffith start to glow when he's around Worm and he gets mysterious telepathic flashes of his new friend's life before capture. When the four young Dragon Masters attempt to leave the castle one night for an adventure, danger strikes in the form of a red orb, which causes the dragons to go mad and the tunnel they are currently escaping from collapse. Drake and Worm use their newly found telepathic powers to help the gang escape, proving that this non-assuming Earth Dragon has more to him than meets the eye. Griffith's reaction to the ominous red orb leaves the readers with a hint of more adventures to come, leading readers to the next installment of the series, which at present contains five volumes.

Scholastic established the Branches line of books in 2013 in order to bridge the gap between early readers and chapter books. The sixteen series in the Branches line all contain short chapters, controlled vocabulary, pictures on every page, linear story lines, and are less than one hundred pages. Best of all they have plot lines and humor that appeal to the intended audience and are attractively designed.  This particular series is perfect for children not quite ready for the Magic Tree House, but drawn to fantasy. It will appeal to boys, but will be enjoyed by girls as well. Drake is an unlikely hero that kids will relate to. The reader will immediately connect with him and root for his and Worm's success. Dragons are cool, as are wizards, and kids will want to read this book. The black and white illustrations are excellent, add the story line, and are on every page as promised. A great choice for parents looking to ease their kids into chapter books, older children struggling with reading who need to build confidence, or for grown-ups looking for a short and fun chapter book to read aloud to younger children. This is a series that works to grow readers and although they aren't the most sophisticated books on the planet, they do the intended job very nicely.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

The Tale of Despereaux

The Tale of Despereaux
Kate DiCamillo
Scholastic, 2003 270 pgs.
Grades 3-6
Fantasy/Fairy Tale

Despereaux is a tiny mouse with a big problem.He is drawn to stories and music and finds himself in love with a human princess named Pea. Worst of all he doesn't behave like other mice are expected to and somehow missed the gene to scurry. Because of his attachment to the princess, Despereaux is sent to the bowels of the dungeon, from which mice do not return. Now we meet our anti-hero, a rat named Roscuro, who finds himself unnaturally drawn to the light. An unlucky series of events leads Roscuro above ground to the living quarters of the family, resulting in the demise of the queen and the outlawing of soup, which is a hardship to the entire kingdom. Next we follow the adventures of peasant Miggery Sow, who was sold by her father into servant-hood, treated shabbily, and finds herself working at the castle as a serving girl to the Princess Pea. Mig wants to be a princess and allows herself to get drawn into a dastardly plan to kidnap the princess by Roscuro, who wants royal revenge. All of our characters come together in a climatic crescendo, where Despereaux proves that even small creatures can save the day. Old hurts are healed, old wrongs righted, and our heroes are restored to their rightful place in the universe, more or less, in a satisfactory ending.

Brilliant author and last year's National Ambassador for Young People's Literature, Kate DiCamillo won her first of two Newbery medals for this title and rightly so. The story appears to be simple, yet contains layers that merge at the end, resulting in a sophisticated and satisfying read. It is hard to find non-series fiction of a high quality for younger readers. Despereaux fills the bill, making this title a favorite for teachers and librarians alike. I have re-read this title to prepare for my end-of-the-year book discussion extravaganza for both of my book clubs, where we will read the book, watch the movie and then compare the two, while eating ice cream. Soup would be more fitting, but I would have a book club mutiny, so am sticking with ice cream. The Tale of Despereaux reads like a classic fairy tale, complete with a princess, yet is not girlie. It is filled with adventure and unlikely situations that are written by DiCamillo's capable hand to appear likely. The generous illustrations invite reluctant readers to the party and the wide margins and short chapters help the intended audience to turn pages quickly. DiCamillo offers not just a great story, but food for thought as well. She sprinkles difficult vocabulary throughout the book, encouraging readers to look certain words up, such as "perfidy". Themes explored are the power of light, forgiveness, storytelling, and, of course, soup. One of my all-time favorite book selections for young people, it is sure to be enjoyed by a wide audience. This book is a solid choice for all young readers and continues to be a modern children's classic.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Simon vs. the Homo Sapien's Agenda

Simon vs. the Homo Sapien's Agenda
Becky Albertalli
Balzer + Bray, 2015  320 pgs.
Grades 9-Up
Realistic Fiction

Our story starts with blackmail. Simon accidentally leaves a computer logged into his e-mail where a friend-emy named Martin reads it. Simon is secretly gay and is conducting an on-line friendship with someone named "Blue", who's identity in unknown, but is a fellow student at Simon's school. Simon is not ready to reveal his sexual orientation or expose his developing relationship with Blue to the general public. What Martin wants in exchange for his discretion is to get to know Simon's friend Abby better. Meanwhile, Abby is interested in Simon's guitar playing best friend Nick, as is Simon's other best friend Leah. Sound confusing? Its all part of high school life as Simon and his friends work out their romantic relationships and friendships all under the backdrop of the high school musical. Simon is not the only one with secrets. Both friends and family reveal private parts of their own lives and Simon realizes that life's not just all about him; a valuable lesson for all teenagers. Eventually Simon is "outed" and not on his own terms. After an initial bullying attempt by some homophobic school jocks, the dust settles and Simon is excepted for who is truly is. The identity of Blue is satisfactorily revealed and Simon's story ends with a happily-ever-after, sure to please most teens.

Albertalli offers a light and breezy romance featuring believable, funny, likable, and flawed main characters. The whole cast is well developed and interesting and diverse enough for most teens to find someone to relate to. Simon, out star, is highly likable and will have readers cheering for him and hoping that Blue, the boy he has fallen in love with on-line, is a real person. I was nervous that this plot thread would turn ugly, but Albertalli gives Simon a happy, if a bit unrealistic, ending. Blue, who is extremely private and careful, does a 360. He turns out to be a real person (a character we already sort of know) and becomes Simon's boyfriend publicly and without inhibitions. I don't know that real life runs quite so smoothly, but I can't help but be happy for Simon and will chose to let go of my adult cynicism. I love that Simon is part of a flawed, yet functional family and both his sisters and his parents play staring roles in the story and matter to him. Alberalli infuses a lot of humor into the story, making some awkward and difficult moments less intense. The book reads quickly and is hard to put down. The mysterious identity of Blue will help readers to turn pages and then, once he is revealed, to find out what will happen with the romance. There are a lot of players in this drama, but Albertalli writes everyone so distinctly that they are not hard to tell apart. A fun book covering some serious topics, it is a worth while read for teens of all gender identities and sexual orientations.

Monday, June 6, 2016

It Ain't so Awful, Falafel

It Ain't so Awful, Falafel
Firoozeh Dumas
Clarion Books, 2016
Grades 5-7
Historical Fiction

Dumas turns from writing the Iranian-American experience for adults to capturing it for the middle grades. Based on her real-life experiences, Dumas traces three years in the life of Zomorod (re-branded as Cindy), as she moves to a new community in California during the Iranian Hostage Crisis of the 1970s. Cindy struggles to fit in. After a massive fail at friendship with her horse-loving next door neighbor (also named Cindy), she falls in with a group of smart girls at her new school who become true friends. The girls participate in Girl Scouts together, which is a positive experience for Cindy, whose family is struggling with life in America. Mom knows no English and is depressed from missing her family, not fitting in and feeling lonely. Dad loses his job after the revolution in Iran and a group of Americans are held hostage for no apparent reason. Dad, an engineer, sends out resumes daily, yet cannot even be granted an interview. The prejudice against Cindy's family deepens as hate letters are left on her doorstep, as well as garbage and, even more disturbing, a dead hamster. Cindy's new friends help her to overcome the hatred and feel accepted. After the job hunt seems like a hopeless case and their money is running out Cindy's parents decide to move back to Iran even though there are no longer any rights or freedoms for women in their home country and no guarantee of their personal safety. It takes the condo community in which they live to ban together and help out Cindy's family, allowing them to stay in the United States and at last to feel at home in their new country.

This is the second book in a row I've read this week in which events I have lived through have become historical fiction. Cindy's adolescence mirrors my own from wearing gauchos and using Bonnie Bell Lip-smackers to awkwardness around boys and being underpaid for babysitting. Our experience differs in that I was not Iranian during the American Hostage Crisis and although I remember my family tracking the details, it wasn't as personal for me. Cindy shares the experience of being bi-cultural with many American youngsters and her feelings of not fully belonging in either world will transcend to many readers. Prejudice against Muslim Americans is still very predominate today and, especially with so many Syrian refuge children integrating into many American schools, Cindy's story is extremely relevant. The books covers some serious issues, yet at its heart is also a story about growing up and friendship. Dumas interjects humor throughout the story (my favorite part being the depiction of the horrible visiting cousins from Iran), which keeps the book from becoming too weighted. The chapters are short and the book reads quickly. It moves along nicely and never lags or gets boring. Dumas reveals the truth behind the fiction in an author's note and the story is that much more powerful knowing that much of it is real. An enjoyable and important read for young people, it shows the importance of diversity, the ugliness and unfairness of prejudice, and the power of community.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Nine, Ten: A September 11 Story

Nine, Ten: A September 11 Story
Nora Raleigh Baskin
Atheneum, 2016  193 pgs.
Grades 4-7
Historical Fiction

Baskin traces the 48 hours leading up to and including the events of September 11, 2001 as seen through the eyes of four young people. They start the story together with overlapping experiences, yet not interacting, at an O'Hare Airport in Chicago and then they are scattered in different directions to tell their tales. Sergio is a smart, yet economically deprived young man with his grandmother in Brooklyn. While skipping school on September 10, he is befriended by a NYC firefighter, establishing a connection that makes the bombing of the twin towers personal. Will, grieving the loss of his father a year earlier and experiencing his first crush, watches first hand as the airplane crashes in his hometown of Shanksville, PA. Amy starts at a new school in California, where she feels like an outcast. She really needs her mother to talk to, but Mom is in New York City on business, heading for a meeting the World Trade Center. Finally, Nadira is also starting at a new school. She has begun to wear a hijab, an important symbol of her Muslim faith. After the terrorist attacks are revealed to the student body at her school she feels exposed and frightened for her personal safety. The end of the story takes place one year later. All four young people have traveled to New York for the Memorial Service, where they once again share a space and an encounter, yet still remain separate.

This felt so weird determining that a book about September 11 is historical fiction, but to today's youth, the target audience not being alive when the described events happened, it is indeed historical fiction. I went recently to the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York, basically because my visiting father wanted to go. I was pregnant with my daughter during this horrible chapter in American history and haven't really talked about it much with either of my children. The events are too painful and personal and I haven't wanted to revisit it. My thirteen year old daughter was moved at the museum and asked questions, which got me talking, crying, and healing. Kids are starting to learn about the events of September 11 in school and fictionalized stories are a way to present the information in a personal and relatable way. Baskin gives an accurate and well researched account of the experiences of the four very different young people. She shows the fear and shock they are feeling and does not shy away from the brutality of the events. She intentionally, as explained in an author's note, does not have any of the four young people lose anyone close to them. The story is disturbing enough for the intended audience without bringing more tragedy to the proceedings. The prejudice against American Muslims at the time (and still happening today) is an important chapter to the story and will hopefully give today's readers a useful "take away". Honest and accurate without causing nightmares, Baskin hits the nail on the head for today's young people who would like to know more about this horrible tragedy and may spark meaningful conversations with parents and other grown-ups who lived through it.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Waylon! One Awesome Thing

Waylon! One Awesome Thing
Pennypacker, Sara
Marla Frazee, Illustrator
Hyperion, 2016  198 pgs.
Grades 2-5
Realistic Fiction

Everything is different in fourth grade for science-geek Waylon. At school the boys has split into teams, determined by class kingpin, Arlo, which makes life awkward for Waylon who wants to be friends with everyone. At home his older sister has changed into a moody and angry teenager and the transformation has shifted the entire family dynamic. Waylon weathers the storm by purchasing a science journal and scribbling his musings about the natural and scientific world. Equilibrium is shaken once again when a former student and alleged juvenile delinquent re-enters the class. Everyone is sure that Baxter spent the last few months in jail and Arlo is reluctant to put him on a team. After yet another weird outburst in class Waylon also finds himself team-less. The two outcasts become reluctant friends and Waylon learns the truth behind the personality and intentions of the class "bad-boy". The new team of two bans together to rescue a lovable dog from certain death and the rest of the class gets drawn into the adventure. The entire group forms an informal team to rescue the desperate canine and the class goes back to being one big crew of friends with Baxter now part of the group.

Waylon is to Clementine what Stink is to Judy Moody: a companion series to the original featuring a male character to appeal to a wider audience. Clementine is a student in Waylon's class and makes appearances, which will please her fans. Waylon is not only funny and relatable, he will appeal to science-minded kids everywhere. His brain never stops working. Waylon spends a lot of time thinking about gravity (who doesn't?) and he thinks he may have figured out teleportation and is working on time travel. Waylon doesn't want to be a superhero like most boys; he aims to be a science-hero. Like most scientists, his brain doesn't always process social cues and he struggles to figure out people and relationships. The One Awesome Thing (OAT) of the title indicates a game he plays with his family where they share an awesome fact from their day. This game helps him to connect with his sister who is pulling away, but by book's end we understand her better and she softens up, showing the reader that crazy teen siblings will return to sanity. Waylon's family is supportive, quirky, and ever-present, making a nice change from the abundance of independent orphans running around in children's literature. Walyon, himself, is simple and sweet and he pulls his class back together by befriending the outcast, which is a lesson every child should learn. All plots are resolved, yet a last page development will lead the reader to the next installment in the series. The reading level is perfect for the intended audience. The margins and print are big, helping developing readers along. As with the Clementine series, beautifully rendered pencil illustrations are offered by Marla Frazee (one of my fav illustrators), which truly add to the story and break up the text.