Saturday, September 25, 2010

A Guaranteed Good Read

by Kirby Larson
Scholastic (September, 2010)
Ages 9+

THE FENCES BETWEEN US reintroduces Scholastic's Dear America series through the diary of thirteen-year-old Piper Davis who witnesses the incarceration of her preacher father's entire congregation of Japanese immigrants and their American-born children during World War II.

As author Kirby Larson expertly reveals over the course of the novel, it was one of our country's darkest secrets and deepest shames—particularly in the Pacific Northwest where the threat of an attack from without and within our borders felt imminent (sadly, not all that different from today).

Piper's account of the events leading up to, and during, the incarceration of Japanese Americans is carried by the impeccable voice of authentic self-interest that slowly evolves from lipstick and boyfriend drama to the realities of war and fear of "otherness."

Larson ups the emotional ante for Piper, whose brother is stationed in Pearl Harbor when his ship is attacked. So, while her father attends to the victims of war at home—to the point of moving with Piper to Idaho Falls to be with his congregation fenced inside Camp Minidoka—she follows news reports of the war in the Pacific with an added level of fear for her brother's life.

Through Piper's recounting of the news, as well as her vivid description of conditions inside two incarceration camps (thanks to Larson's brilliant decision to make Piper a budding photographer), THE FENCES BETWEEN US explores the war far and near without ever feeling like a history lesson.

The voice of Piper is pitch perfect, adding yet another layer of authenticity to a fictional account that feels so very real. Piper's entries are loaded with the idioms, values, and facts of the day in a natural, unforced way. And, as she changes, so too does the reader, as we transform from outsider to insider, peering through the fog of war to find some clarity and understanding.

This is education at its best—when it makes the reader think beyond the dry facts to what it all means in human terms.

Kids, teachers, and librarians will love this riveting relaunch of Scholastic's Dear America series.

Satisfaction Guaranteed:
Because I know and adore Kirby Larson, one could argue that my opinions are biased. So, just to keep my integrity, I'll stand behind my words with a money back guarantee. If you are not completely satisfied with THE FENCES BETWEEN US, send your copy to the South Sound Reading Foundation, email to let me know, and I will refund your money. F'real.

Source: I bought my copy at Third Place Books

Thursday, September 16, 2010

It's no secret...

The Fantastic Secret of Owen Jester
by Barbara O'Connor
Frances Foster Books/Farrar Straus Giroux (August 2010)
Ages 8-12

It's no secret that I'm a BIG fan of Barbara O'Connor's work. She's got a signature style that never goes out of style. Her words are playful, lyrical, and a delight to read aloud.

The stories have heart.
The emotions are earned.
The characters are true.

It's also no secret that I'm a tough reader, hard to please, and easily irked when I think a writer is rusting on her laurels.

The only rusting going on in THE FANTASTIC SECRET OF OWEN JESTER, however, is the cage that Owen and his buddies Travis and Stumpy are constructing for poor, sad Tooley Graham, "the biggest, greenest, slimiest, most beautiful bullfrog in the whole world."

Once again, O'Connor has crafted a tiny corner of the world that's jammed packed with characters and mysteries that she slips into the story as easily as Owen drops poor Tooley into Earlene's soup pot. Besides Owen and his buddies, there's the memorable Viola, a girl who makes it her business to be in Owen's business no matter how much he tries to shed her from his life. I love this kid. She could have easily been a one-note character, but O'Connor surprises us—slowly, but surely—as the story unfolds.

The adults are, thankfully, either in the background or slightly off center stage, just enough to make life complicated for Owen. Interestingly, Owen and his parents have come to live with his grandfather due to financial problems. O'Connor drops this background—so pertinent to today's reality—with a deft hand. The loss of Owen's home is simply there. It gives an emotional underpinning to the story without being the least bit overwrought and hand wringingly nauseating (as others with less skill—me maybe—would be tempted to do).

With great subtlety, Owen's story mirrors that of Tooley Graham—plucked from his home and made to live under the unnatural law of Earlene, his grandfather's aide. The relationship Owen has with his grandfather is magnificently understated. He shares his secrets with his ailing grandfather (who never speaks) at the same gradual pace that it takes him to make sense of the world.

It's incredibility difficult to people a world without confusing the reader or becoming distracting, but O'Connor manages to do this with such ease, the result looks effortless. Every character is part of a delightfully designed puzzle that, when it comes together, is completely satisfying.

Why discuss the characters first, before the plot? Because the characters are what make this story float (heh). The big secret of course (which is illustrated on the book's stunning cover), is the discovery of an unearthly object that's fallen off the train tracks in the middle of the night. It's the sort of discovery of a child's summer fantasy, but O'Connor makes it perfectly possible.

And that, ultimately, is the wonder of this book. It leaves the reader feeling that the world, despite its problems, is filled with possibility. Imagination is not just in the head. It may, in fact, be just beyond those trees, lying off the side of the tracks, waiting to be discovered.


Source: I bought my copy at Orca Books.

For fun, check out Barbara's O'Connor's Trailer:

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Uh Oh

(Or How My Science Project Destroyed the World)
Written by Mac Barnett, Illustrated by Dan Santat
Hyperion Book (June 1, 2010)
Ages 4-8

Having read and loved Mac Barnett's Brixton Brothers' CASE OF THE CASE OF MISTAKEN IDENTITY, I could not wait to get my hands on his picture book OH NO!, illustrated by Dan Santat.

Let me just say that it is a visual feast, a gloriously illustrated graphic-novel-style-picture-book-that-defies-picture-book-convention. This is good and not so good. The good is that it is delicious eye candy from cover to cover. Dan Santat is a genius. Period. As someone who volunteers for a reading foundation, handing out free books by the hundreds, I know that kids would dive-in headfirst for this golden nugget.

The not so good is that I would be there to pull them back from the plunge and point out a book with an actual plot. Because the truth is that there's no there there. It's a premise (what happens when a girl's science project destroys the world?) with an unfulfilled promise.

I could add a spoiler alert here, but the subtitle sort of gives it all away: How My Science Project Destroyed the World. That about sums it up. Santat's stunning comic book illustrations show how a girl's (a girl, yay!) science project destroys the world. To her (and Barnett's) credit, she does try to fix the problem...once, by repeating it. So much for story arc. 

In a chilling way, it reminds me of M.T. Anderson's FEED, in which language is boiled down into its most elemental state, except that in the case of OH NO! it's the concept of story that's been reduced for mass consumption, sort of like being fed through the television. It's non-interactive. You look at it, but you don't really need to think about it.

I can't see being able to read this aloud at a storytime event because there's a lot going on visually that would be hard for a group of children to see; and it doesn't seem to challenge the imagination enough to sit down one on one. It is something that, like television, could be given to a child to keep busy, but that sort of ruins the point of a picture book. Little kids are learning how to use a book, turn a page, read left to right. The layout of this book appears to ignore developmental needs. So, maybe it's a new breed of early reader, for first and second graders who want to watch a book.

I could have said nothing about Oh NO! because I admire Mac Barnett's work (and Dan Santat, well, he's brilliant), but I found myself dreaming about it last night and getting upset. It's not really this particular book that's gotten a rise out of me, it's the style of book--a $16.99 television program or movie produced by Disney. Even the gorgeous cover, when removed, lays out to reveal a movie poster.

Please, don't let this be a trend. And Mac Barnett, please get back to telling great stories.

Source: I bought my copy at Orca Books.