Monday, November 28, 2011

Oh Boy, Canada: Three Great Reads

by Hugh Brewster
Scholastic Canada (September 2011)
Ages 9-12

This recent release of I Am Canada tells the fictionalized account of a fourteen year old boy, Jamie Laidlaw, who travels with his parents on the Titanic's maiden (and well, let's face it, final) voyage. It's rich with detail, but not one bit pedantic or boring as Jamie recounts his excitement and wonder at seeing the ship for the first time, and being a curious boy, it's through his eyes that much of what's known about the real life passengers and their lifestyle aboard ship is conveyed. Jamie's father is a banker whose trip is courtesy of the Imperial Bank, a benefit that positions Jamie in the midst of first class luxury.

While his parents hobnob with power brokers of the time, Jamie befriends another boy and off they go exploring, giving the reader a top notch tour mixed with little dramas to personalize the story (Jamie's dog is in the kennels, his friend's pet rat gets loose). Of course, the reader knows what's coming, but that knowledge doesn't diminish the suspense one bit. Once the ship hit the iceberg and people are told to go above out of caution, I could not put the book down. Brewster relates the details of those hours— the mounting confusion and Jamie's dawning awareness of the trouble they're in—to maximum effect. I've always had a fear of ships at night (having been passenger on one and employee on another), and reading this just about gave me flop sweat. The chronicling of the lifeboat shortage is pretty disturbing, knowing that half the passengers are doomed, but witnessing it through the eyes of a boy who's only just beginning to understand this heightens the horror even more.

I could go on and on, but I don't want to give away the ending. If readers who love adventure based on real life can get their hands on Deadly Voyage, I don't think they will be disappointed.

by Sarah Ellis
Scholastic Canada (September 2011)
Ages 9-12

That Fatal Night takes a different kind of dramatic approach to the Titanic saga. Instead of telling about her story of survival, twelve year old Dorothy Wilton's diary avoids talking about what happened when she traveled alone (with an escort) aboard the doomed ship. It's the avoidance, with haunting clues (needing to have her shoes by her at night, the obsessive desire for neatness), that creates the dramatic tension in this fictionalized account.

Dorothy talks around the tragedy—writing in her diary that she will record everything but that event. Instead, she focuses on the good times she had visiting her grandparents in England and the days after her return. These accounts are incredibly well done, with Dorothy inventing a script to describe scenes that shed light on her internal struggles (she plays the rold of CG—Canadian Girl, other cast members include her grandparents, cousins and the dog).

It's clear that she carries guilt about something related to Miss Pugh, the woman who accompanied Dorothy on the voyage but didn't survive. There's enough anticipation created through this device of avoidance to pull the reader along, with revelations that are both heartening and heartrending. I could say that girls will love this book, but I'd like to think that boys would pick it up, too.

by John Wilson
Scholastic Canada (February 2011)
Ages 9-12

Here's a revolting little fact about World War I that was news to me (granted, much of WWI is news to me, overshadowed as it is by part II): Deserters from several countries were court marshalled and shot, Canada included.  Shot at Dawn is the fictionalized account of one whose been arrested and is awaiting dawn where he expects to be executed, a young soldier by the name of Allan McBride.

There's not much I can say about the details of this account that won't be utterly disturbing—the appalling conditions under which they fought, the brutal treatment of the army's own soldiers to keep them from deserting, not to mention the horrors on the battlefield and all the ways a body and mind can be destroyed. The most compelling, in this case, is the mental stress and trauma that unravels so many soldiers. Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome is a condition that's recognized and treated today, but back then it was just not understood. In Shot at Dawn, Allan interprets the behavior of his commanding officer (and friend from back home) as cowardice. It's only later that Allan's account takes us right into the mind of someone who's broken by the wickedness of war.

There is no glamorization of war going on here, and the futility of it rings loud and clear. For young readers of war history, this book is well worth the journey.

Source: Review copies provided by the publisher

Friday, November 25, 2011

Rearranging Lifeboats on the Titanic

I recently read two compelling middle grade books about the Titanic. My reviews will come in a couple days, but in the meantime, I wanted to mention a factoid that struck me as I read the back matter of one of the books:

63% of first class passengers were saved
43% of second class passengers were saved
25% percent of third class passengers were saved

It occurred to me that this would never happen today.

First, there wouldn't really be any second class passengers, and those that were in first class would be a very small percentage of the overall manifest (let's say, oh, 1%).

Second, instead of women and children first, there would be a democratic election in which it would be pointed out to the third class passengers that it makes more sense for 100% of first class passengers to be saved because only they can create jobs so that all those suffering third class passengers have some hope of improving their circumstances--otherwise, what's the point in surviving if you haven't got something to look forward to? Let's face it, no one wants to be in third class forever. The first class is offering a different kind of life boat. It will just take a little longer to arrive.

Third, first class passengers need more room for their valuables, which are necessary to fuel the economy so that they can create jobs for the people sinking into the frigid deep blue.

Fourth, there might be some third class hooligans who object to this arrangement, but they are so poorly dressed and LOUD, it's almost hard to understand what they're saying. In fact, their message is deemed too unclear and, well, not very credible.

It's decided that the obvious choice is to allow first class passengers full use of the lifeboats so that they can go home and make life better for everyone. Besides which, they are already inside the boats and it would take too much time to roust them out, leaving everyone to perish.

It occurs to leaders of the first class passengers, however, that it might look bad if they are the only ones to survive, so they decide to take on some of the third class passengers. Actually, they are crew members, but it's getting dark and hard to tell all the screaming people apart. It works out to be useful because now they have someone to row the lifeboats and get them out of there.

Meanwhile, as the third class passengers are swallowed up by the sea, the survivors hone their message for the folks back home. It's important to present a united, unyielding front, unlike the drowning masses whose voices are all garbled...

Anyway, it's just a thought that occurred to me.

Review: The Underwear Dare

by the Nardini Sisters
Sorelle Publishing (February 2011)
Ages 8-12

Caution: Adults are not likely to be charmed by The Underwear Dare, with its heavy doses of gross out humor and bully vs nerd well trod trope; however, this adult found herself laughing in spite of herself, and there's no doubt kids will be entertained as two step brothers square off in a series of dares that has them each doing the unthinkable—acting in ways they each want each other to behave.

The story starts off with painfully tired stereotypes—nerdy Josh suffers from his stepbrother Eddie's cruel pranks. They share a room. They fight. The situation seems unchangeable, until Josh's dad announces that he's turning the attic into a bedroom. The catch: the boys have to decide, without fighting, who gets the coveted room. Thus, the dares. Each boy has a week to complete his dare. If they both complete their dares by Friday, they move into a new dare the following week and the week after that, culminating in the ultimate dare: the first one to run through the cafeteria during lunchtime wins.

Josh dares Eddie to stop bullying kids (i.e., taking protection money) and to do something nice for everyone he's been mean to. And Eddie dares Josh to produce an earsplitting belch in class. Both are challenging enough to turn the first week into a fun drama of failures and mishaps, resulting in both of them being brought in for weekly sessions with an earnest school counselor.

As the dares progress, tidbits emerge that shed light on Eddie's behavior and the boys' relationship slowly transforms. The Nardini Sisters do a really nice job of not being preachy. Instead, Josh's insights are lightly tossed and always secondary to his main occupation: winning the dare by being more disgusting than his step brother. The ending is perfect and well earned.

My only real quibble is with the typesetting (of all things). Funny that I would even notice this, but it's off just enough to have distracted me in the beginning, especially the large first line indentations. The story and writing grabbed me soon enough to get past that, though. It's such a fun read, with surprisingly touching revelations, I'd definitely recommend this one to reluctant readers, especially those who love to be grossed out.

Source: Review copy provided by the publisher.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Review: True (...sort of)

by Katherine Hannigan
HarperCollins (April 2011)
Ages 8-12

Delly Pattison is about as likeable a troublemaker as they come. She's irrepressibly curious, passionate and, unfortunately, a bit lacking in self control. (Naturally, I took to this kid right away.) She's got a plan to stay out of trouble by attaching herself to the new girl, Ferris Boyd, as it seems that the air doesn't stir much around Ferris.

In fact, Ferris, who doesn't speak and cannot be touched, is such a mystery to Delly that she decides to take the new girl on as a project, following her into the woods to see where she disappears and, ultimately, devoting herself to protecting Ferris from unknown peril. Ferris also draws the interest of a Brud Kinney who mistakes Ferris for a boy and is enamored of "his" deft basketball skills.

There's clearly something wrong with Ferris and her home situation, but what happens there is not revealed until the very end. Delly's story is so lighthearted and entertaining, and Ferris is carrying such a dark secret, that the shift at the end felt almost too much. I wish it had been integrated earlier.

There's a whole community feel to Hannigan's novel, with lives intermingling, separating and colliding. For the most part, she pulls this off quite nicely; however, the shifts in point-of-view are often so sudden and random that, for me, it sometimes becomes a jumble of head hopping. I wish the story had kept to Delly's point of view, and maybe Brud's, but the others' thoughts intruded on the flow just enough to be a distraction. 

Even with my quibbles, this story has stayed with me, and that tells me there's a lot to recommend here. It's worth reading for the voice of Delly alone, and the lovely way Hannigan introduces readers to a character who, without saying a word, says a lot more than most.

Source: I received a review copy from the publisher.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Review: Charlie Joe Jackson's Guide to Not Reading

by Tommy Greenwald
Roaring Brook Press (July 2011)
Ages 9-12

If there's one topic that makes my blood boil, it's the issue of boys who hate reading, the reason being that this is usually followed by the need to write more books that boys like—in other words, books that don't have girls for main characters. Before I launch into a mini rant, I need to state first that Charlie Joe Jackson's Guide to Not Reading does not perpetuate that heinous cultural bias.

Once I realized this, my ire had no where to go. In fact, one of Charlie's tips is: If you have to read, read about girls. What's not to love about that? Tommy Greenwald created such a likeable character in Charlie—a boy whose sole aim is to get through school without ever reading a book—I simply gave up looking to be irritated and went along for the ride. Sure, he's a cheater and a schemer, but he's a fundamentally good kid with a great sense of humor.

The premise of the book is, of course, ironic. Here's a boy who hates to read so much he's written a slew of tips to get out of the dreaded task. He even makes an agreement to keep his chapters short and his syllables mono—promises he can't keep, given that it turns out he's actually got a good story to tell. So, while on the face of it, this appears to be a fluffy little book of tips, it's actually a fluffy-esque little book with great pacing and a narrative arc that's satisfying.

(Now for the rant.)

Although Charlie's reason for not wanting to read has nothing to do with girl characters—the book he's currently avoiding is about a boy and it involves baseball, so there goes that theory—in real life, it's a reason that many people seem to accept as valid. Why is that? Can't boys be encouraged to broaden their gender-centric horizons? Unfortunately, the answer to that is no, at least not enough of them. It's a deep societal bias. (The Institute on Gender in the Media states that only 28% of speaking characters in film and television--both real and animated--are female. This, despite the fact that girls and women compose 51% of the population.)

A case in point: I was volunteering at the book van one day, and we had a stack of Powerpuff Girls books. Two little boys came along at different times of the day and each grabbed a Powerpuff Girls. One mother told her son to put it back. "That's for girls," she said. Her tone was so harsh, he dropped it immediately. The other mother didn't object to her son's choice, at least not at the time (who knows if it ended up being discarded). I might have suggested a better book, but not because of gender.

It's far from a scientific study, but the reaction of the mother who objected to the girl book gave me the chills. She was teaching her son that reading about girls is bad. Her tone was shaming. Girls, on the other hand, read all sorts of books regardless of the main character's gender.

If the idea is to write books about boys so that boys have books to read, I refuse to acquiesce. If, however, the idea is to write an engaging story that clips along, then I'm all for that. I don't write for genders, I write for readers. I do believe that boys may gravitate toward more plot-driven than character-driven stories, and I think that's a valid consideration. There are girls who also prefer similar plot-driven stories.

Fortunately, this is not an issue in Charlie Joe Jackson's Guide to Not Reading, a book for readers looking for a good story with lots of laughs. I would especially recommend this book to reluctant readers of any species or gender.

Source: I borrowed my copy from the library. Libraries are great. You could borrow this very book from one for free. However, if you decide you want a copy of your very own, I suggest buying one from an independent bookseller, or even Barnes & Noble, because they have four walls and people you can interact with. Plus, there are no shipping charges and they say nice things like, What a great choice you made. I need to read this, too! And that feels good.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Review: Pearl Versus The World

by Heather Potter
Candlewick Press (August, 2011)
Ages 8-12

For a book of its size (80 slender pages), Heather Potter's Pearl Versus the World sure does create a large and lasting impression. It's got that lingering quality I look for in a good story, a feeling of fullness that lives on long after its ending.

Narrated by Pearl in spare free verse, Pearl Versus the World handles some very heavy topics with a gentle touch as Pearl comes to terms with the fading away (and, ultimately, death) of her beloved grandmother who suffers from dementia. Meanwhile, Pearl is fading away too. At school, she feels like a friendless outcast, a group of one who doesn't fit in, just like her verse doesn't fit in with her teacher's expectations to write poems that rhyme. As Pearl explains, "There is no rhyme in my life."

With few words, Potter crafts a surprisingly complete portrait of Pearl as she navigates grief, loss, love and friendship. Despite the heaviness of the topic, Potter handles Pearl's story with such easy grace, there's a feeling of completion and peace that's very reassuring. More vignette than novel, and very young in tone, Pearl Versus the World is an excellent book for young readers, especially those who, like Pearl, are coming to terms with loss and grief.

Source: I received a review copy from Candlewick Press

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Review: The Luck of the Buttons

by Anne Ylvisaker
Candlewick Press (April 2011)
Ages 8 and up

It's 1929 in Goodhue, Iowa and twelve-year old Tugs Button is yearning to break free from generations of hapless Button tradition in which winning is a pompous pursuit and badge of shame. Due to the great good fortune of being the exact same height as the town's most popular girl, Aggie Millhouse, Tugs Button is a prime candidate to pair up with Aggie for the Fourth of July three legged race and maybe, just maybe, have a shot at a blue ribbon. The idea of winning something, anything, opens up a world of other possibilities for Tugs, all of which fly in the face of Button family values.

The Luck of the Buttons is an utterly delightful, delicately crafted novel of life in small town America, where Rowdies rule the road and a flim flam man is poised to fleece its residents of their life savings. Ylvisaker resists cliche's (the popular girl is actually kind and helpful and being poor isn't a shame, it's just a way of life) and offers up a subtle, yet lively, spin on shedding limitations and trusting one's instincts.

Ylvisaker shows great restraint by weaving in storylines such as the flim flam man without taking away from the primary focus, which is Tugs internal struggles to rise above the lucklessness of the Buttons. This is a character driven novel that's beautifully blended with its engaging plot, clipping along at a fast pace while still maintaining the slow sway of Goodhue's way of life.

This is one great read.

Source: I borrowed my copy from the library.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Review: The Romeo and Juliet Code

by Phoebe Stone
Arthur A. Levine Books (January 2011)
Ages 9 and up

First of all, please ignore the cover of Phoebe Stone's The Romeo and Juliet Code. Its contemporary teen love story vibe simply does not do this book justice. For one thing, the story takes place during WWII. For another thing, if it's a love story, then I completely missed this fact. What it is, however, is one heck of a well-narrated tale of family secrets and wartime intrigue. (And yes, there's a crush in there, too, but it's nothing like what the cover suggests.)

The novel opens just as eleven-year old Felicity Bathburn Budwig arrives at her grandmother's moody, broody home on the coast of Maine after having been spirited away from bomb-torn London by her American father and British mother. They leave her there to be watched over by a troubled uncle, despairing aunt, secretive grandmother and a resident known only as Captain Derek who never leaves his room. The Romeo and Juliet Code riffs on works by Frances Hodgson Burnett—The Secret Garden and A Little Princess, which Felicity becomes an authority on—and, while it has the same sort of English orphan feeling of abandonment and hidden truths going for it, it doesn't delve as deeply into matters of healing and transformation that The Secret Garden does.

More than anything, it's the voice of Felicity that makes this book work. She's smart, articulate, and wonderfully unreliable in her misinterpreted memories of Danny and Winnie (her parents). The reader, of course, suspects what Felicity's parents have been involved with long before she does, which makes the narration all the more engaging. If only her inability to recall and interpret the past had been set up a little better, I could have bought the fact that she didn't know what was going on. The fact that she assumes her parents will return soon is hard to understand, considering that she arrives in May and her mother leaves her with a letter that's to be given to her uncle at Christmastime. Trauma can explain a lot when it comes to a character's denial, but I found I had to create my own justification in order to keep believing that she was so slow to tumble.

My other issue is that the ending would have happened no matter what Felicity did or didn't do. Although her actions affected a couple sub plots (her lonely aunt and mysterious Captain Derek), she was primarily uncovering secrets that (and this may be a spoiler) would have been revealed anyway. Her growth is more of an acceptance, and that would have come in time regardless.

Despite all that, I still liked the book a lot and would recommend it to readers who love to be immersed in moody settings, secrets and wartime mysteries.

Source: I borrowed this book from the library. The real one.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Friday Twofer

Two stories. Two girls. Different continents. Different lives. Great reads.

by Trent Reedy
Aurthur A. Levine Books (January 2011)
Ages 10 and up

Inspired by an encounter with an Afghani girl during his military tour of duty, author Trent Reedy offers a remarkable debut novel that's rich, satisfying and (from this outsider's viewpoint) so authentic it's hard to believe it was written by an American soldier, let alone a man. Words in the Dust is narrated with such confidence and intuitive understanding of what it means to be a girl living in an oppressive society, I was totally immersed in a world that should feel light years away in terms of geography and culture, but which Reedy crafts with such intimacy, I can practically taste the dust and disappointment as though I'm living it.

The story revolves around thirteen year-old Zulaikha who was born with a cleft palate, further isolating her from a society that already devalues her because of gender. Her mother having been killed years earlier at the hands of the Taliban, she lives in servitude to a stepmother who can't bear the sight of her. However, when American soldiers offer to correct her cleft palate, Zulaikha's hopes for a better life, free of abuse and ridicule. The question remains, however: Even with the surgery, what will life hold for a girl in a culture that denies the value of women?

Reedy handles these (and other) painfully complex issues with careful respect, not once stooping to sentimentality or simplification of unresolvable issues. Despite the inability to provide a tidy ending, he manages to produce a satisfying and realistic conclusion.

by Tami Lewis Brown
Farrar Straus Giroux (August, 2011)
Ages 8-12

The Map of Me, by Tami Lewis Brown, was such a treat to read, I was sorry to see it end so soon. At 150 pages long, it's short, but complete (not one bit unfinished feeling). I simply wanted to spend more time in this topsy turvy world of twelve-year old Margie Tempset and her annoyingly brilliant little sister, Peep.

Margie's first person narration is refreshingly different and, at times, laugh out loud funny, despite the fact that the story revolves around a deeply dysfunctional family and Margie's frantic search for their mother whom she believes has taken off in search of a Henny Penny Coin Canister. This is unreliable narration at its best—driven by a denial to face the truth rather than a narrator's intentional deception.

Margie is so sweetly, fabulously flawed in her thinking, Brown has the reader pulling for her in spite of the fact that she lies fairly easily, steals her father's car and takes her little sister on a road trip that's not nearly as easy as she anticipates. The characters are so fully drawn, they walk right off the page. Brown depicts the parents with small strokes of brilliance—light touches that tell the reader these two kids are pretty much on their own even when both parents are around.

As unbelievable as the story line might seem (two kids on a wild ride through the back roads of Kentucky), it's probably one of the most emotionally honest stories I've read this year.

Source: I borrowed both copies from the library. The real library, not that hideous Amazon Kindle crap.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011


I never thought I'd be too busy to blog, but there you go. It happened. There are those who say if you can't blog every day, don't do it at all. Clearly, I'm not of that mind set.

I'll be back to posting more reviews in a few days. In the meantime, the November issue of Black Lantern Publishing is now available for sale (pdf right now and full color print in two weeks). It's a gorgeous edition of macabre literature. My flash fiction, Uninvited, But Not Unwelcomed, makes its debut in there. Imagine that!