Thursday, February 28, 2019

The Book of Boy

Image result for book of boy murdock coverThe Book of Boy
Catherine Gilbert Murdock
Greenwillow/HarperCollins, 2018 278 pages
Grades 4-7
Historical Fiction/Fantasy

Known only as "Boy", our poor hero suffers with a hunchback at the mercy of the abusive and crabby cook, who is now married to his infirmed master in medieval France. A pilgrim finds him in a tree and invites him along on his journey to help carry the pack. Boy agrees and with Secundus, his new master, he journeys through France and Italy collecting relics. Why is Secundus intent on collecting the relics of Saint Peter? And what is Boy's secret of which he intends to fix upon arrival in Rome. A true quest, our heroes travel from village to city and across the sea pilfering religious relics/former body parts of Saint Peter along the way. The travelers encounter many dangers such as wolves, entrapment, angry monks, violent villagers, and dishonest crooks. As the quest continues, Boy finds relief from the pack he carries and his hunchback becomes less pronounced. Why doesn't Boy eat and how come he can talk to animals? The secrets and motivations behind the true identities of both Secundus and Boy are revealed by book's end as the small team reaches the holy city of Rome and the climatic end of the journey.

Even though I am a fan of Murdock's other work and this book had great reviews, I did not read it last year because I thought it looked boring. After winning a Newbery honor I felt obligated to crack it open and was glad that I did! The Book of Boy is my kind of book. It is a tightly written classic quest-tale filled with adventure and surprises. Having traveled to Italy just this past year, I saw my share of religious relics and enjoyed the medieval focus on these interesting and important, yet morbid, items. Murdock does not reveal to the reader the true identity of the main characters and instead slowly gives the readers clues to whom they are. Boy's true identity is super cool and readers will probably figure it out based on clues before it is officially stated. The pen and ink illustrations by Ian Schoenherr help to place the story in its historical context and add to the overall atmosphere. A medieval map is at the end of the volume instead of the traditional beginning, yet I still spent a good deal of time pouring over it. Murdock had me at the introductory quote, "The Key to Hell Picks All Locks", and I enjoyed every bit of this story. That said, I think the potential audience is a very narrow cross-section of folks. I do not think many young readers will "get" this story nor give it a chance. There have been a few kids I have met over the years who would fall right into it, but they are few and far between. The Book of Boy is a great recommendation for lovers of medieval history or wizened librarians, but perhaps not for today's young insta-generation.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Where the Heart Is

Image result for where the heart is jo knowles coverWhere the Heart is
Jo Knowles
Candlewick, April, 2019 304 pages
Grades 5-8
Realistic Fiction

Summer is here and thirteen-year-old Rachel can't wait to hang out at the beach with her best friend Micah, only things have been weird with him lately. He seems to like her as more than a friend and their social group consider them a couple, only Rachel doesn't feel romantic about him at all. Life gets more complicated as a new girl moves in and starts hosting pool parties, drawing Micah’s interest and making Rachel feel awkward and shabby. Her parents are constantly fighting and are having financial problems with the possibility of losing the family farm. Rachel accepts a job with a neighbor feeding their animals and she and her little sister get attached to a pig who is being raised for slaughter. Tension both at home and with Micah escalates and both fronts finally come to a head. Meanwhile, Rachel starts to develop a crush on one of her female acquaintances, which further contributes to her confusion. The summer draws to a close with some important changes, yet her family is still intact and she realizes that home really is where the heart is.

Jo Knowles offers another heartfelt novel about coming of age and the confusion of growing up. I loved her previous title See You at Harry's and was excited for this new story. Although not as heart-wrenching as See You at Harry's, this new novel also features contemporary family life with all of its complications. Rachel’s family is going through a very difficult time and both Rachel and the reader are not sure if they will make it. They do make it, although not without sacrifice, and the reader is left with the message that people and relationships matter, not things. Rachel has her first romantic stirrings and although the intricacies of middle school drama are explored, it never goes beyond the crush stage, although she does share a kiss with a male school mate to see what it is like. Young people will find much to relate to here and will be reassured that they are not alone. This story is a quiet slice of life, yet contains enough of a plot to hold the readers interest. It is sure to find an audience and is a great addition to the summer reading shelf.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Struttin' with Some Barbecue

Struttin' with Some Barbecue: Lil Hardin Armstrong Becomes the First Lady of Jazz
Patricia Hruby Powell
Rachel Himes, Illustrator
Charlesbridge, 2018 96 pages
Grades 3-6

Narrative poetry relates the life of one of the forerunners of jazz, Lil Hardin Armstrong. Though not as well-known as her famous husband, Louie Armstrong, Lil was instrumental in building his career and had an impressive career in her own right. At a time when most female jazz musicians were regulated to singing only, Lil made her mark as a ground-breaking jazz pianist. Powell traces Armstrong's life in four parts from her southern birth, to her migration with her mother to Chicago, to discovering and performing jazz and meeting the great Louis Armstrong. The two fall in love and she encourages him to go from second trumpet to the front, eventually forming his own band. Though the couple has great professional success, we see the segregation and discrimination of the time, as well as tension within their relationship and eventual divorce. Not just the story of is mportant couple in music history, but that of early jazz, encouraging readers to want to learn more and listen to some of the recordings.

Much as she did with her previous books Loving vs. Virginia and Josephine: the Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker, Powell offers a biography of the jazz pioneer written in narrative poetry. The print is large and the book is short enough that emerging readers may want to give this story a shot, yet the subject matter also lends itself to an older audience. Himes’ illustrations will further drawn in readers and shed light onto the narrative. Powell's poems not only tell a story, but are rhythmic and reflective of the jazz music it describes. Scat phrases and lingo from early jazz culture pepper the text, putting the story into its proper connotation. An author's note and photo of Lil draw in the reader and extensive back matter, including a brief biography of Lil and a brief history of jazz and its social culture, as well as a timeline, glossary, bibliography, resources, and an index round out the volume. Powell certainly did her research and her knowledge and love of jazz comes through in the narrative. This is a well written, researched, and documented story for young people about a little known American music pioneer that will be a natural fit for both school and personal use. I dare you to try to read this book without going to YouTube to hear her music. A little gem of a book that may need some help to find its audience, but is well worth the effort. 

Sunday, February 17, 2019

A Mango Shaped Space

Image result for mango shaped space coverA Mango Shaped Space
Wendy Mass
Little Brown, 2003 270 pages
Grades 5-8
Realistic Fiction

Mia has always felt different. She thought that everyone could see numbers and letters in terms of colors, until a fateful incident at the chalk board in third grade told her differently. After getting in trouble and laughed at by her classmates, Mia has kept her ability to see colors in letters and numbers a secret. Now that she is in eighth grade, school work is getting complicated and the colors are keeping her from succeeding in math and Spanish. Finally, after confessing to her parents about her abilities, a visit to the family doctor leads to a psychiatric appointment and, finally, to a diagnosis of synesthesia, a rare condition matching exactly Mia's abilities. Mia's family is put in touch with a specialist at a near-by university, who educates her about the condition and puts her in touch with other synesthetes and a website with more information. Through the website Mia connects with a boy who shares her condition and the two strike up a friendship, leading to a romance where they finally meet at a conference over Thanksgiving weekend. Mia learns to adjust to her new world, as she taps into resources and learns to enhance the experience through acupuncture. Just as life starts to feel comfortable, a tragedy strikes to her beloved cat, Mango, and the trauma forces Mia's colors to disappear. Will they ever return?

With the present popularity of realistic problem fiction I thought I would give this book another try to see if it still holds up. It does and is a great choice for kids who loved Counting by Sevens or One for the Murphy's. Certainly, this is a book written with the intent to expose kids to the condition of synesthesia, but there is a plot attached as well that will entertain and keep readers turning pages. This book felt to me like reading Judy Blume and brought me back to my youth. Beyond Mia adjusting to her synesthesia and sharing her condition with friends and family, she is also dealing with friendship problems, bratty siblings, the death of her beloved grandfather (who's soul she thinks may have gone into the cat), and middle school dilemmas. Growing up is not easy, especially when you throw seeing colors into the mix. Mia learns to embrace what is cool about synesthesia and discovers the enhancement of acupuncture, which almost becomes obsessive and not healthy for her. Readers will feel the emotion when the cat dies and be relieved by the hopefulness of the ending. Gentle humor is infused throughout the story and Mia's family is very real: both supportive and loving, yet with warts. There is a gentle romance introduced and some mature themes, making it not quite for younger elementary. The neutral cover will invite boys to the story even though the main character is a girl. A thoughtful and entertaining book with a lot of heart.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Waiting for Normal

Image result for waiting for normal coverWaiting for Normal
Leslie Connor
Katherine Tegen Books, 2008
Grades 4-8
Realistic Fiction

Thank you to Joseph for this recommendation.

Dwight, twelve-year-old Addie's ex step-father, moves her and her mother into a beat-up trailer in urban Schenectady. Dwight has custody of Addie's two little sisters since he is their biological father, but cannot get custody of Addie, even though they both would prefer that. Mommers is mentally ill and goes off on tangents, often leaving Addie to fend for herself. Luckily she makes friends with Soula at the Mini-mart across the street and since Soula is undergoing chemotherapy treatments, the two begin to depend on each other. After a disastrous winter concert, Addie must give up her beloved flute and because of a learning disability, struggles in school even though she works very hard. Addie has a tricky school year of visiting Dwight and her sisters at their warm upstate home and trying to hide the fact that she is often without food or supervision in her day-to-day life in the trailer. Finally, a tragedy bursts the whole situation wide open and decisions must be made about Addie and her future.

Leslie Connor is my new favorite author that I should have read, but haven't. I loved this book so much and never wanted it to end. Addie is such a richly drawn character that readers will feel as if they know her personally. I wanted to reach into the book and pull her out and move her into my home. There are many students who will relate to Addie's story and find courage in her struggles and final resolutions. Those who can't relate will, perhaps, be kinder to that child with shabby clothes who struggles with reading. Readers will also come to love the minor characters, particularly Soula, and experience the power of community. Connor realistically portrays adults as flawed, but most, with one notable exception, can be trusted and counted on. The ending is a happy one for Maddie, though Mommers is not miraculously cured, showing that sometimes things don't work out exactly as we would like, but there is hope and healing. The upstate New York setting is carefully drawn and relatable to me as the home of my youth. One criticism is that I listened to the audio, which featured a reader with a southern accent, which I found distracting and jarring. Yes, Schenectady may feel culturally like the south, but people talk decidedly different. Kids who love realistic "problem novels" will devour this story and perhaps delve into some of Connors other titles, which are also great. Give to fans of One for the Murphy's and Out of My Mind.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus

Image result for insignificant event cactusInsignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus
Dusti Bowling
Sterling, 2017 262 pages
Grades 4-8
Realistic Fiction/Mystery

Thank you to Alma for this wonderful book suggestion.

Moving across the country to a town in rural Arizona and starting a new middle school would be tough enough, but Aven has to introduce herself as a new student without arms. Her old classmates were used to how she did things with her feet, including eating, but now Aven feels as if she is on display and no one wants to be her friend. Finally, she meets another student who also feels isolated, Connor, who has Tourette's Syndrome and next an overweight boy who is constantly teased. The three new friends join Aven at the shabby western-themed park, where her family now lives and manages. It is here that they stumble upon a mystery: where is the missing portrait of the owner’s family and why are some things kept under lock and key? Also, why is the doddering old man who works in the ice cream shop constantly confusing Aven with someone else, though he seems to recognize her and knows her name? Aven and her new friends search for clues as they attempt to find footing at the school, self-confidence and courage, while also trying to bring the park back to its glory days.

This is the second title recommended to me by my book club kids and not only have I never read it, but I never bought it for my library. I have since ordered this title, as it is a natural follow-up to hand to lovers of Wonder. Realistic Fiction, where the main character is struggling with something, is still very popular and this title will be an easy sell. The main character is a girl, but the cover is ambiguous enough that it will not turn away boys. The mystery element give the book an added dimension and structure beyond seeing how Aven copes with no arms. The mystery itself is slight and not the point of the story. It involves the secret behind Aven's parentage, which although a bit unrealistic and tidy, will satisfy readers. Kids will find much intriguing about this book and will appreciate the time spent in Aven's shoes. As a character Aven is remarkable. She remains cheerful and optimistic most days, although we do see her frustrated and discouraged sometimes. Aven serves as a true inspiration on what the human body can overcome and will encourage readers to appreciate what they have and how little they actually struggle in comparison. The desert setting is fully realized and the author (who boasts a perfect name for this story) incorporates cactus and tarantulas into the plot, further bringing the setting into the story. Book discussion questions at the end make this a perfect choice for classrooms and groups. A rare gem of a story that will appeal to a large cross-section of readers.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Sink or Swim

Image result for sink or swim watkinsSink or Swim: a Novel of Word War II
Steve Watkins
Scholastic, 2017 247 pages
Grades 4-8
Historical Fiction/Adventure

My selection for February's Bookworm Club (grades 5 & 6) is "Blind Date with a Book". I wrapped some of my favorite titles in plain brown paper and the members have to read a book "blind" and report to the group how their date went. They felt that I should also read a book "blind" and three members managed to come up with titles that I have not yet read. This is the first assigned title and deserves a shout-out to Nikhil for the recommendation.

Twelve-year-old Colton is out fishing with his older brother, Danny, off the coast of North Caroline when German U-boats capsize their small craft and they must fight for their lives. Danny lands in a coma and Colton decides to "borrow" his admittance papers to the US Navy in order to earn the struggling family some much needed money. Big for his age, Colton takes Danny's identity and struggles through basic training and then further training to work on a patrol craft designed to detect U-boats. Through the process he learns to stand on his own two feet, fight fear, and contribute to the war effort, all while making a few good friends. Colton and his team accompany supplies ships up and down the east coast of the US, keeping the German's away and braving foul weather. Eventually, they are assigned to cross the Atlantic, where real trouble starts. An attack gone wrong, Colton and his crew suffer devastating losses and the destruction of their ship. Wounded and disheartened, he must survive on a lifeboat, waiting rescue-hopefully from the right side!

Based on actual events, Watkins fictionalizes the story of a real boy who enlisted in the Navy at twelve and served in the war until his mother spotted him on a newsreel and brought him home. Colton is used as a vehicle to bring the war closer to young readers and his first person narration makes us feel as if we are really there. Most books about WWII for young people focus on the holocaust or the homefront, so it is refreshing to see the actual war portrayed in a realistic, yet approachable way.  Young readers will devour the adventurous story, yet also pick up facts about the historic war. I have heard of U-boats, but didn't really know what they did. I love walking away from a children's book having gained some knowledge, while also being entertained. This is a great choice for reluctant readers, especially for those dreaded historical fiction assignments, and will be an especially easy sell to boys. Back-matter includes a glossary of terms and an author's note putting the story into historical perspective. It is interesting to see that the country's discriminatory stereotyping of people from New Jersey has moved from Broadway and television to children's literature. One of the sailors from New Jersey with a smart mouth is feared to also sport a "New Jersey Temper", although he utters my favorite line: "Ain't nobody soft that's from New Jersey." Amen!

Friday, February 8, 2019

New Kid

Image result for new kid jerry craft coverNew Kid
Jerry Craft
HarperCollins, 2019 249 pages
Grades 4-8
Graphic Novel

Jordan starts his seventh grade year as a new scholarship student at a prestigious New York City private school. He is scared about not fitting in and being one of the only kids of color at the school and of losing touch with his old neighborhood pals. Jordan would rather go to art school, where he could put his talent for cartooning to good use and find like-minded friends, yet his mother wants him to take advantage of the academic opportunities this new school has to offer. On the first day he is immediately paired up with a guide; a rich boy named Liam. Jordan meets all kind of kids, both nice, and not so, and encounters stereotyping and racism from both students and teachers, even well-meaning ones. As the school year trudges on, Jordan finds common ground with Liam and the two bond over a love of video games, even though Liam's socioeconomic situation is much different. He also befriends another scholarship student of color, who he has much in common with. Can Jordan be friends with both boys together or must he keep them separate? And how about his neighborhood friends? Can he maintain a relationship with them as well even if he is growing up and away? And how does he handle uncomfortable situations with his classmates and teachers? Middle school is confusing, but it seems as if Jordan has more to worry about than the average seventh grader.

Publishers are finally getting that message that boys like realistic problem comics as well as girls. I have nearly as many boys as girls ask me for Raina Telgemeier read-alikes. It is with great relief that we are finally getting some graphic memoir-type graphic novels featuring a male character, depicting what growing up can be for a boy. Craft offers the reader a very likable protagonist, fully drawn and developed, who faces not only the standard problems of starting a new school and making friends, but adds another dimension of race. Most of the fellow students are nice to Jordan, yet he feels set apart and from a different culture. One student is obnoxious, yet is insensitive to everyone and Jordan shows great moral fiber in reaching out the hand of friendship at the end of the story. The teachers are a bit more complicated as they struggle to overcome stereotypes and years of history at the school serving the privileged white. Uncomfortable situations arise, yet Jordan asks questions, gives people a chance and figures it out. The plot is great, tracing the school year, leaving room for a possible sequel featuring eighth grade. The drawings are in full color, except the black and white pages of Jordan's drawings, scan well, and add to the story. Some heavy issues are explored, yet Craft adds humor in places, which helps to lighten the story and keep it from becoming preachy. Less silly than other graphic novels aimed at this demographic, New Kid is a perfect choice for boys not quite ready for American Born Chinese or Hey, Kiddo. An enjoyable  and fresh book with something to say that will be happily read cover-to-cover by all who pick it up.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Lovely War

Image result for lovely war berryLovely War
Julie Berry
Viking/Penguin March, 2019, 500 pages
Grades 9-Up
Historical Fiction

Aphrodite, immortal goddess of beauty, is caught in an elegant WWII hotel by her husband Hephaestus with Ares, the God of war. Hephaestus puts the lovers on trial and Aphrodite shares a story of other lovers from the previous world war to win her angry husband over. As she tells her tale Hades and Apollo also join the party and alternating chapters go from one time to the previous. During WWI we trace the very different experience of all four young people as their lives intersect and intertwine, narrated by Aphrodite and sometimes Hades. James is a young British soldier who meets Hazel, the piano player at a dance in London. The two spark an instant connect that continues even after James is sent to the front to become a sharp shooter and Hazel joins a group of female volunteers in France. It is here that she befriends Colette, who has lost her entire family in Belgium. A singer, Colette meets Aubrey, an African American ragtime piano player from New York City. The two musicians collaborate and eventually fall in love, which does not sit well with the southern white soldiers of the segregated WWI army. An attack on Aubrey results in his disappearance and the separation of the both couples, as James is sent to the front, wounded and shell shocked and out of Hazel's reach. Will true love find a way or are these young people destined for loneliness amidst the violent backdrop of the devastating war? Will Hephaestus come to forgive Aphrodite? All is revealed by book's end.

Julie Berry is, in my humble opinion, the best teen writer currently producing new material. All the Truth That’s in Me is so tightly written and sophisticated that I didn't quite get it, although I loved it. The Passion of Dolssa was also brilliant and I understood it better, yet the medieval setting is not necessarily teen-friendly.  This latest novel, set to be released next month, is up to her exquisite standards, yet is more readable and will be enjoyed by teenagers-as well as adults. The story within a story is less confusing than it sounds and adds a rich layer to the telling. Chapters are clearly marked by the date, as well as the narrator, to further alleviate confusion. Although there are many books set during WWII, the first war is more unusual. Berry clearly did her research, depicting the war in Europe, while also highlighting the African American experience and contribution to the war effort. Young readers will experience this time through the eyes of other sympathetically portrayed young people, who are thrust into a crazy situation, yet manage to find love and healing. Readers will be cheering for both the young couples and Berry, though not pulling everyone through without some scars and baggage, give us a reassuringly happy ending. There are some very graphically violent bits (this is war after all) making it not appropriate for younger teens or sensitive readers. The cover is beautiful and will attract readers. The book is long, yet reads quickly and moves rapidly. I have a short attention span, yet devoured it and was sorry when it ended. I am assuming Penguin will cross market to adults as well as teens, because it deserves a place on both shelves.