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.