Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Wednesday Wars

Gary D. Schmidt
Clarion Books 2007

Holling Hoodhood is sure his seventh-grade English teacher, Mrs. Baker, hates his guts.

And that was before he accidentally wrecked the cream puffs, and before he accidentally let loose her pet rats, and before he started spouting curses from his Shakespeare reading (that was on purpose).

Repairing his relationship with Mrs. Baker is important. Mrs. Baker's family owns a sporting goods store, and Holling's father is hoping to get the architectural contract for their new building. As The Son Who Is Going to Inherit Hoodhood and Associates, Holling had better shape up and do whatever it takes to get on Mrs. Baker's good side, even if it means playing a dorky fairy in the community production of "The Tempest."

Set over forty years ago against the backdrop of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement, The Wednesday Wars is the hilarious story of a boy trying to navigate the rocky shoals of seventh grade. Holling's voice has an air of tall-tale telling that kept me laughing. But the book isn't all comedy. Holling's evolving relationships with the people around him reveal some poignant insights on friendship, on racism, and on what it means to be a hero.

One of the best books I've read in a long time. I recommend The Wednesday Wars for ages eleven and up.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Wee Free Men

Terry Pratchett
Harper Trophy, 2004

Nine-year-old Tiffany doesn't care a fig for her baby brother. She resents the fact that he usurped her place as youngest child, resents having to watch over him all the time. So when she notices a strange creature lurking in the stream near her home, she doesn't hesitate to use her baby brother to lure the monster out so she can give it a good whack with a frying pan (before it gets anywhere near baby brother, of course).

Tiffany's bravado impresses a band of small, blue-skinned rouges that go by the name of Nac Mac Feegles, otherwise known as the Wee Free Men. When Tiffany's baby brother goes missing a few days later, they tip her off that he's been stolen by the queen of a nightmare fairyland that's invading Tiffany's world.

Armed with her frying pan and accompanied by a mob of tiny rebels, Tiffany marches into fairyland. It isn't so much that she cares about her baby brother. It's that the queen stole something from her, and Tiffany means to get it back. But in order to do so, she has to discover another weapon--the magic inside herself.

This book is Terry Pratchett at his best.  Lively humor from the antics of the Feegles, cunning word play, delicious satire, deep beauty, and ancient wisdom all play together to create this delightful coming-of-age story about a young witch-in-training named Tiffany. Recommended for ages nine and up.

Monday, March 29, 2010

When You Reach Me

Rebecca Stead
Wendy Lamb Books 2009


When You Reach Me is a book of stunning revelations. Of discovery.

Time travel. The book begins in 1978, and so as I first settle in to the story I feel like I'm time-traveling already. But soon I forget I'm in the past, because Miranda and her friends act like sixth graders act now, like they've always acted since the sixth grade was invented.

Stead's characters are so human, so immediate, so rich and surprising and fascinating. They pull me through the exposition until the mystery begins.

And then I can't put it down. My daughter needs a ride to the craft store to buy shells for her history project - traditional ceremonial mask from Bambara - and I say, "Okay, okay, but only if you'll read to me on the way."

Book, bag, pocket, shoe---in each place Miranda finds a clue, a hint that there's a deep tragedy looming, something that will kill one of her friends and destroy another. Miranda can stop it, but only if she believes that she can affect something after it's already happened.

This is one of the finest science fiction books I've ever read. Through the course of the story, Miranda makes deeply powerful discoveries about herself, about her friends and family, and about life. I loved the setting, learned things about growing up in New York City that I never would have guessed. Stead's insight into the nature of time made me want to joyfully embrace the universe. This is a great book, every bit deserving of the Newbery Award. And it's science fiction!

Bravo! Author! Encore! Recommended for ages ten and up.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Troll Fell

Katherine Langrish
HarperCollins 2004

This is the kind of book I like best.

Peer has no time to grieve over his father's sudden death. His cruel uncle shows up at the funeral, claims Peer and all his father's property, and drags the boy back to the dismal mill which he shares with Peer's other uncle, his equally nasty twin. Half-starved and forced to do all the work around the place, it doesn't seem it can get any worse for poor Peer.

Then Peer learns his uncles have plans for him. They've bargained with the Troll King to provide a human slave as a wedding present for an important royal match. Peer has to find a way to escape before the midwinter wedding, but where can he go that his uncles won't find him?

Katherine Langrish spins a delicious tale, with trolls and wicked uncles you love to hate, and a clever and kind-hearted hero you love to cheer on. Lush prose paints the Scandinavian setting in perfect detail, with lively descriptions that are a joy to read. The story rolls faster and faster to the climax, with one disaster piling on top of another, until I was just aching for the characters and couldn't see how they could possibly get out. And then it got even worse!

Fans of the folktale will adore this adventure in the lands of the far north. Recommended for ages ten and up.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Graveyard Book

Neil Gaiman
HarperCollins Children's Books 2008

An orphan boy, adopted by ghosts on the night he was to be murdered, grows up in secret in an ancient graveyard. The ghosts name him Nobody, and give him the power to move in their world. The ghosts keep him hidden as long as they can, but in the end, Bod must confront the man who murdered his parents and wants to kill him too.

There's plenty of darkness in this story, but also plenty of light. I loved the ghosts, people from all centuries, who banded together to keep Bod safe from the murderer. Bod's adventures---being kidnapped by ghouls, braving the haunted barrow deep under the graveyard, and even attending the local public school---all prepare him for the final showdown with the man who has wanted him dead all his life.

Neil Gaiman shows off his mastery of language, of character, and of storytelling in this very engaging read. I loved how the intriguing world unfolded slowly, with dropped hints at the powers Bod has grown up with and so takes for granted.

A clever, spooky read for ages twelve and up.

Monday, March 8, 2010

The Little Secret

Kate Saunders
Feiwel and Friends 2006

Something about those Brits---they sure can spin a fantastic tale! Kate Saunders is no exception. Her story has all the mystery, oddity, humor, and charm I've come to expect from that camp.

Staffa, the new girl at Jane's school, may talk funny, sit and drink coffee at recess, and dress like a grandmother, but kind-hearted Jane sticks up for her anyways. Jane isn't exactly thrilled when Staffa immediately claims her as a best friend, at least not at first. It turns out that Staffa's mother is disgustingly rich, and Jane soon finds herself showered with presents and invited to posh afternoon teas. To top it all off, Jane is eventually invited to spend a few weeks of summer holiday at Staffa's country home, a real castle in northern England.

It's a fairy-tale come true for Jane. And I mean that very literally. And not one of those nice little Disney fairy tales either.

I loved this book from the beginning, knowing there's something odd about Staffa and her mother, and being drawn along by not knowing quite what it was. Kate Saunders handles Jane's reactions and decisions so well, I believed every bit of it. I had the chilling conviction that in Jane's shoes I would have put my foot right in the very same trap. A very fun read for ages ten and up.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon

Grace Lin
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers 2009

Yes, there is justice in this world. How do I know? Grace Lin's Where the Mountain Meets the Moon won a Newbery Honor.

Minli lives with her mother and father in the shadow of fruitless mountain. Their home is small, their clothes are plain, and they can hardly grow enough rice for themselves. But Minli loves listening to her father tell stories at the end of each day, stories that eventually inspire her to leave home and seek to change her family's fortune.

It's a dangerous road, but Minli meets each obstacle with a clever mind and a kind heart. She gains friends, wisdom, and answers as she traverses a web of stories woven together into one exquisite tale. This book is a perfect little gem, a great read-aloud for children, and a treasure-trove of insight for young and old alike on the nature of true happiness. Rich color illustrations by the author in Chinese folk-art style illuminate the pages. Sweet as ripe peaches, precious as a pearl, this joyful book is for anyone old enough to read or be read to.

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Gate in the Wall

Ellen Howard
Atheneum Books for Young Readers 1999

Ever since she was seven, Emma has known nothing but long, grueling days at work in the silk factory. While her sister stays home with a sickly new baby and her sister's drunken, abusive husband looks for work, Emma's wages are the only thing keeping bread on the table. Battered, numb, and ragged, Emma never imagines that another world, another life, lies just on the other side of the wall.

One day, late for work, shut out from the factory and terrified of the beating she'll get back home, Emma sees an open gate in the wall and steps through to find a shining canal and a long, painted boat full of potatoes. Half starved, Emma doesn't think the owner of the boat will miss just one. But when the surly old boatwoman comes back and finds out what Emma has done, she presses Emma into service to pay for the missing potato.

At first Emma thinks she'll run away back to her sister's house at the first opportunity, but as the days go on Emma comes to love her new life on the canal. For the first time in years she's clean and well fed, and she enjoys walking all day alongside the horse that pulls the canal boat. Still, Emma can't help worrying about her sister, and about her little nephew. Emma struggles to choose between deserting her sister and deserting the boatwoman who has given her a new chance at life.

The Gate in the Wall reveals a world within a world, a colorful society of boatpeople with their own fascinating culture that flourished on the canals alongside and almost outside the grim, sooty reality of the industrial revolution. Throughout the book I enjoyed watching Emma bloom in their community, journey from abused factory waif to confident young woman. Recommended for ages nine and up.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Dragon of Trelian

Michelle Knudsen
Candlewick Press 2009

An awkward mage's apprentice, a young princess with a secret, two enemy kingdoms making peace with a royal wedding, evil forces that will do anything to start the war anew...

...and a dragon.

You may have seen all these story elements before, but you've never seen them put together quite like this. Michelle Knudsen's first novel brings to life a fresh world of magic and danger. I thoroughly enjoyed this engaging and very fun read. The suspense at times was absolutely unbearable---I was squealing and stomping my feet, having to force myself to read line by line instead of skipping down the page to make sure everything turns out all right.

I hope Michelle Knudsen writes more novels. I want to read them all.

Monday, February 8, 2010

All the World

Liz Garton Scanlon
illustrated by Marla Frazee
Beach Lane Books 2009

Lots of picture books have made me laugh.

Very few have made me cry.

All the wonder in the world seems to be captured in the quiet poetry of Liz Garton Scanlon's text. Lyrical, it throbs with the steady rhythm of life. I love Marla Frazee's lively illustrations, simple but just bursting with personality. This book made me glad to be alive, grateful to tears for trees and oceans and sunsets and people. What better feelings are there to share with a child?

Monday, February 1, 2010

First Light

Rebecca Stead
Wendy Lamb Books, 2007

In a colony carved out beneath an arctic glacier, Thea's people live a simple life, safe from the angry mobs that hunted their ancestors for witchcraft. But now their numbers have grown too large. They can barely sustain themselves. Thea wants to find a way to the surface, but her grandmother, the leader of their clan, has forbidden it.

Peter has never been to Greenland before. His father, a glaciologist, has always gone by himself on research trips, but this time Peter and both his parents are going all together. Once there, Peter begins to suspect that his mother and father are looking for something, something they won't tell him about.

Then Peter discovers a strange marking in the ice, Thea decodes an ancient map, and two worlds are about to collide.

First Light had me hooked in the first few pages with its exceptional prose and characters so alive I loved them at once. I had gone to the library looking for Rebecca Stead's Newbery winner, When You Reach Me, but according to the library's computer catalog, six other people had the same idea before I did. I will have to wait. In the mean time, I simply adored her science fiction arctic adventure mystery of a first novel. Recommended for ages ten and up.

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Hunger Games

Suzanne Collins
Scholastic 2008

As late as the fifth century of the Christian Era, Roman citizens gathered in great stadiums to watch criminals and slaves battle each other to the death. Some competitors were highly trained, with wealthy sponsors who provided weapons and armor. Others were simply societal rubbish thrown to the wild animals. These bloody entertainments might make us shudder now, we who are used to knowing that the people we see hacked up or shot to pieces on the movie screen will wipe off the makeup and go home after work in one piece.

But what if the gladiatorial games were revived, and broadcast on national television?

This is what makes Hunger Games so eerie. It isn't much of a stretch. Reality TV plus the Roman Area? It could happen.

To punish their people for a rebellion nearly seventy-five years ago, the Capitol requires each District to sacrifice two of their children each year to the Hunger Games. When Katniss volunteers to take her sister's place as a contestant, she is thrust into a wilderness crawling with enemies where she must struggle not only for her life but to maintain her identity in spite of being on the cast of a deadly entertainment spectacular.

It's a brilliant premise, and Suzanne Collins makes the most of it. She deals out edge-of-your seat adventure while laying on the full emotional impact of being in the Games. At the heart of this disturbing, haunting tale of survival is a battle between one girl's inner humanity and the tyranny of an inhumane society. This is real literature, AND a riveting read.

It's violent, so violent I almost didn't review it. Still, it has my approval for dealing with the consequences of violence rather than merely mucking around in gratuitous gore. For ages 14 and up.

Monday, January 18, 2010

The Watsons Go to Birmingham-1963

Christopher Paul Curtis
Yearling, 1995

Kenny's older brother Byron is big trouble. Hanging out with his delinquent friends, playing with matches in the bathroom, stealing cookies from the grocery store---Byron is not the kind of older brother a kid can look up to. When Byron dyes his hair his parents decide that's the last straw. His sentence - leave Flint, Michigan and spend a summer with Grandma Sands in Birmingham, Alabama. The whole family piles into the "Brown Bomber" and takes off on a marathon drive from the icy north down to to the deep south to drop of Byron at Grandma's Detention Center.

Sure, there's been some trouble down there in Alabama, something about segregation, but that won't stop the Watsons from taking a trip to the old hometown.

Byron's antics and Kenny's hilarious commentary create a heartwarming picture of a family just trying to do their best to get along in hard times. Quirky and human in a deeply believable way, by the end of the book the Watsons feel like part of your family.

Which makes the Sixteenth Avenue Baptist Church Bombing so much more than a historical event. It becomes a heart-stopping tragedy.

A book that reminds us how precious life is, how ugly hate is, The Watsons Go to Birmingham is a great piece of historical fiction. Mild language and vulgarity, some bullying situations. For readers 13 and up.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Petronella Saves Nearly Everyone

Dene Low
Houghton Mifflin 2009

The very title of this book made me want to pick it up and read it.

Petronella Arbuthnot would like to be a very proper Victorian-era young lady, but never lets that aspiration get in the way of her adventurous spirit. When her coming-out party is overshadowed by a collapsed party-tent and a couple of political kidnappings, she puts on her sleuthing hat, and, in company with her dearest friend and dearest friend's bothersomely attractive older brother, scours the countryside and braves the foggy streets of London in search of clues. With a hilarious cavalcade of bossy aunts, irritating cousins, undesirable suitors, and helpful domestic servants in tow, Petronella carries the day with dash and style...

...and saves nearly everyone!

Packed with delightful period details, this book sparkles with personality as mischievous Petronella narrates her sometimes rather un-ladylike adventures. Best enjoyed by readers ages twelve and up.