Sunday, October 23, 2016

The Misadventures of Max Crumbly: Locker Hero

Image result for max crumblyThe Misadventures of Max Crumbly: Locker Hero
Rachel Renee Russell
Simon & Schuster, 2016 302 pgs.
Grades 3-6
Comic/Fiction Hybrid

Russell, along with her two daughters, turns her attention away from the mega-popular Dork Diaries series and introduces a male character. Because of severe asthma, Max was previously home-schooled by his former kindergarten-teacher grandma. He is anxious to leave sippy cups and graham crackers behind as he enters the hallowed halls of South Ridge Middle School. Because of his natural clumsiness and social awkwardness, he becomes a target for a bully named Thug. After many harrowing and humiliating encounters with Thug, including one witnessed by his crush Erin, Max gets thrown into a locker, where he is fated to remain for the entire Columbus Day weekend. A soft wall in the back of his locker is pushed through and Max finds himself in a long forgotten room in the school. The room has no doors or windows, so Max must try to escape through the air duct system. While crawling around the metal pathways, Max overhears three men of bumbling natures attempting to steal computers from the school. Naturally, they discover our hero before he has a chance to call for help. It is now up to Max to escape from the bad guys and see that justice is done, all while not letting his parents find out what is happening and force him back into grandma-school.

Russell and daughters employ the technique used to popularize The Dork Diaries to expand the umbrella of their audience to include boys. Characters from the previous series pop-up, which will draw in old fans, all while drawing in new ones. Much like The Dork Diaries, slapstick humor and awkward situations are utilized to amuse readers and enable them to feel better about their own "dorkiness", which can't be half as bad as poor Max. Max is a likable character who tries earnestly to fit in. No matter what he does, it always manages to backfire, usually with humiliating and hilarious results. Potty humor abounds and gross situations will amuse the intended audience. Much of the action reads like something out of a comic book. The story is over-the-top and quite unrealistic, but this, again, will delight reluctant readers. The bad guys are stock characters from an old movie. They remind me of the villains from Home Alone; bumbling, stupid and never a real threat. Comic-like illustrations are expertly drawn and abundant. They add to the plot and are an intricate part of the story. The book ends with a cliff hanger, encouraging the reader to head right to book two, which is scheduled for a June, 2017 release. Is this the stuff of great fiction? Perhaps not. Will kids want to pick it up and read it through to the end? Absolutely!

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Snow White: a Graphic Novel

Image result for snow white phelanSnow White: a Graphic Novel
Matt Phelan
Candlewick, 2016 unpaged
Grades 4-Up
Graphic Novel/Fairy Tale

Set in New York City during the Great Depression, Phelan, serving as both writer and illustrator, revamps a classic fairy tale using his own unique vision. Snow White's father is a business man, the stepmother is a star with the Ziegfeld follies, the mirror is now a ticker-tape machine, the prince a police detective and the dwarfs are homeless children. After being chased by a dangerous hobo sent by her stepmother to kill her, Snow White meets a group of homeless boys in an alley. They take her to the abandoned warehouse they call home and she entertains them and makes them feel safe by telling them stories. The children become attached to her and are devastated when, the next day, Snow White returns to the warehouse and passes out; the effects of a poisoned apple. The boys chase the old hag/stepmother, who meets with her final demise in a scene of massive karmatic significance. Now it is left for the well-meaning police detective to try to wake Snow White, eventually leading to a happy ending for all. 

This stylized cover has been staring at me from my library's new book section, coaxing me to read it, until I finally gave in. The story is close enough to the original to be familiar and comforting, yet different enough to engage the reader and encourage active participation in comparison. The Depression setting in integral to the plot and the the book's design and mood reflect this distinctive setting. Phelan is very conservative with his text, using speech only when necessary. The bulk of the story is told in the illustrations. These finely crafted and loose pictures are drawn primarily in black and white. Sparse color is used intentionally and carefully to highlight where the artist wants the eye to go and use of color also helps to tell the story. Starting with just red touches, Phelan moves onto blue while Snow White is in her deep sleep, finally moving onto an introduction of yellow light into full color for the happy ending. We see the boy's attachment to Snow White as at first they will not reveal their names to her and finally, after she is poisoned, slowly come forward with their true identities, willing themselves to trust this kind adult. A beautifully crafted book that reflects the growing genre of quality graphic novels for young people.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Election Fiction

With the presidential election upon us in just a few weeks I thought I would offer up some of my favorite election books. All of these books are funny and explain the electoral process to young people in an accessible and entertaining way.

Image result for kid who ran for presidentThe Kid Who Ran for President
Dan Gutman

Scholastic, 1996 156 pgs.
Now twenty years old, Gutman's humorous take on the political process remains, for my money, the quintessential election book for young people.  Judson Moon gets talked into running for president by his political best friend/campaign manger and things quickly get out of hand. His running mate is his former babysitter, an elderly African-American woman. This unlikely team takes America by storm, offering a choice beyond the traditional political parties. The campaign gets much further than Judson ever imagined, reflecting America's desire for a different kind of candidate. The problem is: Judson doesn't really want the job. The publication year is evident in certain ways, specifically the small and specific role of social media, but over-all this book proves that there is little new under the sun.

Image result for fake mustache book

Fake Mustache
Tom Angleberger
Abrams, 2012 196 pgs
Grades 3-6
Angleberger, of Origmai Yoda fame, pens a hilarious romp of trickery and deceit. Lenny's best friend Casper saves all of his money to purchase a high-quality fake mustache, which possesses magical hypnotic powers. While wearing the mustache, Casper manages to robs banks, take over companies, and rise to the highest office in the land. It is up to Lenny and a former horse-riding child-star to stop Casper and keep the country safe from this power-hungry youth.

The Tapper Twins Run for President
Image result for tapper twins presidentGeoff Rodkey
Little Brown, 2016 204 pgs
Grades 4-7
The Tapper Twins are at it again! Claudia and Reece go head-to-head in a bid for class president with hilarious and unpredictable results. Readers see how the political process operates as Claudia and Reece battle it out, all while listening to bad advisers with their own agendas. Rodkey's traditional format of texts, e-mails, and transcripts accompany the text making this book a perfect and visual choice for reluctant readers. Kids will learn about how elections work, all while having fun and giggling along the way.

Image result for vote paulsenVote
Gary Paulsen
Random House, 2013 131 pgs.
Grades 5-8
A companion to Paulsen's series, featuring Kevin Spencer and starting with Liar, Liar, Paulsen satirizes the electoral process by illustrating a class election. When the class president moves away, Kevin and his main competition for popularity both throw their hats in the ring. His competitor is represented by Katie, a girl Kevin has tangled with before, as his campaign manager. As the grueling week of debates and soliciting votes continues, Kevin's life is further complicated by the presence of his new girlfriend who he doesn't know what to do with, the captain of the girl's varsity team who wants to use his political power for her own agenda, and a visiting four-year-old neighbor/menace. Kevin must decide what he stands for and if he really is presidential material in this funny, yet realistic tale.

Image result for genius evil liebI am a Genius of Unspeakable Evil and I Want to be Your Class President
Josh Lieb
Razorbill, 2009 304 pgs.
Grades 7-9
Adding a little bit of a dark-snark to his humor, Lieb takes on the corruption of elections by showcasing a young evil genius's rise to power. Class dork, Oliver Watson, is not what he appears. Under his house he has a secret lair where he operates his empire, wielding power and managing high-finances. When he chooses to become class president he must use all of his massive brain-power and manipulation to win over the student population. The perfect anti-hero, the reader doesn't know whether to root for Oliver's success or to hope that his reign of terror ends. Darkly funny, highly entertaining, and cleverly written, a great choice for middle school readers to see how elections work, all while quickly turning pages to see what outrageous stunt this power-hungry youth will pull next.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Castle in the Mist

Image result for castle in the mist ephronThe Castle in the Mist
Amy Ephron
Penguin, February, 2017  167 pgs.
Grades 4-6

Tess and her younger brother Max are sent to spend the summer with her aunt in a remote house in the British countryside. The children's mother is home fighting a life-threatening illness and Dad is on assignment as a journalist in the middle east. Everyday is much like the next (boring!) until Tess quite by accident stumbles upon a mysterious boy named William who lives in an equally mysterious castle with only kind servants for company. The house is only accessible through a magic key that fits a gate on an invisible wall. Tess returns with Max and the two children have wonderful adventures with their new friend, including riding on a magical carousal which grants wishes and a dinner party which ends in an unique game of miniature golf and an eclipse featuring both a blood and a blue moon all at the same time. With the amazing wonders of the castle comes dangers as well. William warns Tess upon first meeting to "Beware the Hawthorn Trees" and for good reason. Going beyond the Hawthorn Trees leads to a desolate nothingness with no apparent way out. When Max goes "beyond the Hawthorne Trees" it is up to Tess to save him using all the personal courage she can muster. What is the truth behind this magical castle? Who actually is William and how come Aunt Evie has never heard of him? These and other mysteries will be revealed in an ending that will satisfy the reader.

Adult author, Amy Ephron, pens her first book for children with The Castle in the Mist. In it she hopes to create a traditional fantasy along the lines of Half Magic or The Secret Garden. This story does feel like an old-fashioned fantasy set in England, yet staring modern American children to contemporize the tale. The setting of the British Moors and featuring the discovery of a lonely and rich boy who becomes a friend felt very Secret Garden to be sure. The magical carousal where the horses become alive felt very Mary Poppins, although the outcome of the adventure becomes decidedly more sinister. The book begins with a map. As a child when I opened up a book that started with a map I settled in, knowing that I was in for a rich read. A map generally signifies "smart kid fiction" and this will certainly be the audience. Readers who love magic and fairy tales, but aren't quite ready for Harry Potter, will find much to enjoy here. There is a mystery to solve withing the pages: the identity of William and what his backstory is. Readers will guess if he is a real boy or a ghost and Ephron reveals his true status and history. A happy ending all around is a bit unrealistic and comes about quite suddenly, but with today's children having so much of their security out of their own control, they will appreciate that all ends well. A magical and comforting adventure that will appeal to dreamers.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Loving vs. Virginia

Image result for loving vs virginia powellLoving vs. Virginia: a Documentary Novel of the Landmark Civil Rights Case
Patricia Hruby Powell
Shadra Strickland, Illustrator
Chronicle, January, 2017  260 pgs.
Grades 7-12
Narrative Poetry/Historical Fiction

Veteran author, Powell, tells the story of this landmark case, ruling that prohibiting people of different races is unconstitutional by the vehicle of lyrical and narrative poems. Through two points of view the reader traces the romance, courtship, marriage, and early family life of Richard and Mildred Loving. They grew up in a neighborhood where the races mixed and were friends, even though the children went to different school in their rural Virginia county. After marriage and the birth of their first baby, They are arrested in the middle of the night and hauled off to jail for being in a mixed-race marriage, which was unlawful in about half of the states in America in the 1950's. The Lovings had to move to Washington DC and were not allowed to live in the area they grew up in and where both of their families currently resided. Mildred, especially suffered. Being a young mother with a growing family (eventually the couple had three children) and a country-girl at heart, living alone in the big city was torture to her. Moreover, Richard had a very long commute back to his job in Virginia, costing both money and time spent with his family. Finally young and hungry Civil Rights lawyers took on the case and the process began, finally ending in the Supreme Court. The highest court in the land determined on June 12,1967 that men and women should be able to chose their own marriage partners, regardless of race. This case was not just important in so far as bringing families such as the Lovings together, but served as a victory towards Civil Rights and equality for all.

It is amazing to me to think that in my lifetime someone could be arrested in the United States for marrying someone of a different race. This law was on the books in many US states until merely fifty years ago. The path of desegregation and civil rights for all Americans has been long and bumpy and, as recent events in the news has shown, we are not to the finish line yet. Powell offers a beautifully written account of the events leading up to this historic ruling. Her poems are carefully and expertly crafted. They help to add depth and richness to the story, which moves along in an engaging fashion. Richard and Mildred Loving are regular folks with whom readers will identify and feel their struggles. Throughout the narrative photos, facts, quotes, and official documents lend authentication to the events, reminding the reader that this is based on real events. Powell backs up her story with extensive source notes and a time line connecting the Loving's story to the overall civil rights struggles of the time. From the introductory page, featuring a moving poem by Langston Hughes to the end note, telling the reader how the lives of our heroes ended, this book is a treasure. It is stunningly designed and is a beautiful partnership of words and images. Perhaps because of the insertion of factual information and images within a Civil Rights story, I was reminded of Revolution by Debbie Wiles, which was one of my favorite books of 2014. Illustrations, created by Shadra Strickland, reflect the simple color palate of the design and are appropriate to the story. My only complaint is that I would have liked to see an actual photo of the Lovings, which for some strange reason was not included in this visual package. Luckily, google images didn't let me down and my curiosity was satisfied. Great text, thoughtful design, and classroom and curriculum connections make this book a winner.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Wing & Claw: Forest of Wonders

Image result for wing claw forest wondersForest of Wonders
Linda Sue Park
HarperCollins, 2016  343 pgs
Grades 5-8
Wing & Claw Trilogy #1

Raffa lives with his parents in a small village. He is gifted in the ways of mixing potions and his apothecary parents are guiding him in learning the art. Raffa's uncle, also an apothecary, takes advantage of a job opportunity working in the nearby city for the government, taking Raffa's cousin and best friend away with him. After finding a legendary vine in the titled "Forest of Wonders" Raffa concocts a potion that heals a bat and allows him the gift of human speech. The vine is a miracle worker, but, as Raffa soon discovers, is also dangerous. Raffa travels to the city to warn his cousin, who took a cutting from the vine, of the potential dangers. Raffa must trick the ferry man using his apothecary magic to take him across the river and to the big city. Once in the city Raffa is lost. An unfortunate incident lands him in jail, but allows him to make two new friends. One of the new friends, Kuma, has a bear who she can communicate with, much like Raffa's bat Echo, and together the two new friends enter the uncle's home. Uncle is living a posh life in the city. His main task seems to be to develop potions used to train animals to do human's bidding. The tasks seem harmless until Raffa and Kuma discover the real motivation behind the government project. Meanwhile, Raffa's cousin has always been jealous of his apothecaric abilities. Can the cousin be trusted? Raffa and Kuma must protect their animal friends and sift through what they learn in order to discover the truth behind the animal training project, which will involve some dangerous and difficult decisions, including determining who to trust.

Newbery winner, Linda Sue Park, turns to the world of fantasy in this new trilogy for middle readers. The book starts with a map of the land of Obsidia, which children will enjoy pouring over, that reveals to readers that this book is set in a magical world where anything is possible. Raffa has an almost magical gift for mixing potions and it is cool when he is drawn to the vine, heals and befriends the bat, and then Echo begins to speak. From there the book becomes a quest to find his uncle and cousin in the city and overcoming the dangers and obstacles along the way. Once safely ensconced in his uncle's home the book changes again as we suspect their is more to the animal training than meets the eye. The mystery surrounding the animals and who is behind the scheme is revealed, but a cliff hanger of an ending keeps the reader guessing as to how the evil doers will be stopped. The magic in the story comes from the potions created, resulting in animal/human communication. This book has an involved plot with some surprises that will fully engage young intelligent readers. The length of the book is decent and the chapters end at a comfortable interval. Kids ready for more involved fantasy, yet not ready for the seriously heavy stuff, will find this an enjoyable and engaging read. Raffa is talented and smarter than both his contemporaries and adults alike, yet remains humble and always moralistic. He faces tough choices, yet always seems to make the ethical decision. The "Forest of Wonders" in the title does not seem to be very magical. It serves only as a host to the vine with magical properties. Does the forest hold more magic? perhaps that will be revealed in the next series installment.