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.