8.29.2011

The Green Glass Sea, written by Ellen Klages, 318 pp, RL 4

I have to begin this review by saying that I am completely amazed that Ellen Klages' book The Green Glass Sea has only one award medal on its cover rather than the raft of awards that it deserves. It did win the Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction in 2007, which is a prestigious honor, but this seems to be one of the many great books mysteriously overlooked by the Newbery panel of judges in any given year. Besides the stunning setting, Los Alamos National Laboratory during the Manhattan Project, Klages' book is also unique for its representation of intelligent, scientifically minded girls and women. And, finally, The Green Glass Sea is the moving story of two girls who are outsiders on the way to finding themselves and each other. I think I have said here before that I have a hazy grasp of history, so I began reading The Green Glass Sea with only a basic knowledge of the Manhattan Project and the events that occurred in Los Alamos, New Mexico during WWII. I knew how the book might end, but I had no idea how the story would unfold on the path to the successful detonation of the atomic bomb, which is what the adults in The Green Glass Sea are intensely involved in over the course of the story. I am sure that this is the way most young readers encounter this book, unless a parent is reading along with them and providing historical background information. I think this is wonderful, because the reader travels through the plot with the same general sense of knowing that there is a big, big secret and not knowing what it is that the child characters in the book have. However, I think that a discussion of or research into the atomic bomb and the end of WWII is crucial for young readers when reading this book. Keep a pad of paper and pencil next to you as you read - there are so many things you will want to know more about as the story unfolds.

When first meet Dewey Kerrigan in November of 1943 she is waiting for her father to come and get her. A month shy of eleven, she wears steel rimmed glasses and one brown shoe that laces up the side and she has been living with her Nana, who recently went into a nursing home. Dewey's father is going to take her to his new job in New Mexico where she will live with him again for the first time in almost four years. However, instead of her father an army escort picks her up and puts her on the train by herself. Disappointed, Dewey doesn't have too much to say about this and accepts her situation stoically, as she has her whole life. The train ride goes reasonably well and she even has a chance to pull out her copy of The Boy Mechanic and get some work done on the radio she has been building. Thinking she is alone in the observation car early in the morning, she is surprised to get some help from a man named Dick Feynman, who is returning to Los Alamos. Nobel prize winner Richard P Feynman is not the only famous scientist to make an appearance in The Green Glass Sea. J Robert Oppenheimer, who is referred to as "Oppie" in the book and Enrico Fermi also make appearances. 

The extreme secrecy of the Manhattan Project and the existence of the laboratory at Los Alamos is not lost on Dewey or the reader. Mail is censored, people rarely leave the compound and all mail comes to one single PO Box.  No one is referred to by their academic titles, in fact, not even something as simple as being called a chemist or physicist is allowed at the lab. The kids adapt to this by calling their parents "fizzlers" and "stinkers." Once ensconced in a small apartment with her father, Dewey's life gains a bit of normality as she attends school and tries to make friends, although there are many nights that her father doesn't come home for dinner and she cooks for herself. Despite the fact all of the children at Los Alamos (at least those who are not the children of the ranking military there to guard the site) are the offspring of brilliant scientists, there are still mean girls who make Dewey's life miserable and call her Screwy Dewey. However, while making visits to the dump at Los Alamos to find pieces and parts for her inventions she meets two brothers who befriend her, making her life a bit less lonely. 

Suze Gordon is the other main character in The Green Glass Sea and at first she seems almost as unlikable as the girls who tease Dewey. She joins in the ostracizing of Dewey, but it turns out that she is only slightly less an outcast. Suze tried to be part of the Girl Scouts Troupe run by the popular girls in her grade, but she was not happy to have more rules, more green uniforms and more requirements in her life than those already imposed upon her by life at Los Alamos. Both her parents are scientists from UC Berkley and she often finds herself home alone like Dewey. Unimaginative and unexceptional at school, Suze spends her free time drinking Cokes and reading comic books. Regardless, Suze is unwilling to share her room with Dewey when Jimmy Kerrigan is called to Washington DC for work. Mrs Gordon and Jimmy are in the same singing group and through their friendship she comes to know Dewey and takes a liking to her and is happy to have her stay for a few weeks in her home.

The blossoming of the friendship between Dewey and Suze is a bit like waiting for a seed to grow in the desert. In the winter. But it does grow and in a very real, believable, moving way. With fits and starts, the girls find a common language or two. While helping Dewey sort through her boxes and jars of pieces and parts for a specific bolt, Suze begins sorting the objects and then arranging them. Dewey takes note of the artistic way that she has done this and Suze realizes that she has made a collage. From then on, she uses discarded magazines and the art supplies her Grandfather back in Berkeley sends her from his stationary story to make her creations. In turn, Suze shares her comic books with Dewey, who has never read one. The girls also take tentative steps toward each other when they learn that they have names that derive from scientific figures or concepts. Eventually, they begin to work on a joint creation that involves Suze's collages and Dewey's moving gizmos to make up the Shazam Theater, a name with special meaning for the girls. It goes unfinished when the successful detonation of the bomb means the end of the Manhattan Project and a return to civilian life for most of the scientists at the lab. 

While the compelling story of Dewey and Suze plays out, in the background of their lives are the serious events that the adults are working toward. Mr Kerrigan and Mrs Gordon discuss their work in vague ways with the girls from time to time and, while the kids and adults all refer to it as "the gadget," they all know that the adults are building some kind of bomb. In the summer of 1945 Mr Gordon begins staying at work later and later, eventually leaving the lab to work at another site called Trinity. Finally, on July 16, 1945 the bomb is tested at Alamogordo, New Mexico. Mr Gordon is at the site for the test and, some 220 miles away, most of the scientists and their families assemble on a cliffside at four in the morning to watch the test. The description of the experience, even at such a distance, is chilling. As is the growing realization on the part of Mrs Gordon just what she has been working for and what it means in this world. Her anger and frustration, as well as her husband's acceptance of their role in the creation of the bomb, are described peripherally but part of the story nonetheless. To celebrate Suze's twelfth birthday on August 6, the Gordons and Dewey head back to Trinity and the title of the book (as well as a glimmer of the knowledge of what the title of the book refers to) is revealed.

In addition to the fascinating history that provides the framework for the plot, there are the frequent references to music, math and science that occur throughout The Green Glass Sea. Dewey's father quotes Leibniz when he says that "music is the hidden arithmetic of the soul." Suze takes an interest in learning the Greek alphabet and her mother teachers it to her, the symbols popping up again throughout the book. One part in the book I especially liked was when Suze is reading a Wonder Woman comic and gets to a part in the story where she uncovers the laboratory of a Nazi mad scientist in a long white coat, thick glasses and sporting a pointy beard. Suze pauses to think that every man, at least, at Los Alamos, is a scientist in real life but none of them look like the comic book scientists. It is amazing to see this story, this amazing event in history, through the eyes of a child, but it is also fascinating to read The Green Glass Sea and think about what an incredible environment these children grew up in for a few years of their lives. The offspring of scientific geniuses, they also had the occasional benefit of learning from the adults who surrounded them. Klages continues he amazing story in a second book, White Sands, Red Menace, that finds the girls living in a new town and making new friends while the fallout from Hiroshima affects their lives directly and indirectly. I can't wait to get my hands on this book and anything else Ellen Klages has to share with the world!





A piece of green glass from Almogordo.



8.22.2011

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, 224 pp, RL: TEEN



(an epistolary review of an epistolary book)
July 27, 2011

Dear Friend, 

     I am writing to you because she said you listen and understand and that you were at this bookstore and could have stolen this book but didn't. I just need to know that someone out there listens and understands and doesn't try to steal books even if they could have. I need to know that these people exist.
     I just read this book and I really need someone to talk about it with. It was called  The Perks of Being a Wallflower and it's about a boy named Charlie but that's not his real name. He doesn't use anyone's real names in the book. He is starting high school and the whole book is made up of these letters that he writes to this person he calls "Friend." Charlie is a wallflower and there is this English teacher named Bill wants him to "participate" and gives him extra assignments of books to read and write about like To Kill a Mockingbird, This Side of Paradise, Peter Pan, Hamlet, Walden, The Fountainhead and The Catcher in the Rye. Which is funny because those were all books that I really liked when I was in high school. Except The Fountainhead. I thought that only stuck-up, pseudo-smart girls read Ayn Rand when I was in high school. It's funny how she is so popular with Conservative Republican men these days. The Catcher in the Rye was my favorite book in high school. Sometimes I wished I was Holden Caulfield, but he was a pretty messed up kid who ended up in a psych ward just like Charlie. But Holden starts his story from the hospital and Charlie ends his there. In the end it kind of all feels hopeful anyway.


July 29, 2011

Dear Friend, 

     Charlie is a freshman in high school in 1991. The Perks of Being a Wallflower was published in 1999. It has sold many many copies and there are always stacks of it at the bookstore I go to. In fact, I think it is actually assigned reading in a lot of high schools which surprises me, although I guess not. Charlie is a very real person with a very true voice and, if you can understand his story I think he tells a pretty universal tale, however I hope not really. You see, Charlie doesn't realize this until the end of the book, but he was sexually abused by his Aunt Helen and he blocked out that memory. He really loved his Aunt Helen. She was his mom's sister and she was the only person, besides his parents, who gave Charlie a birthday and Christmas present. Charlie's birthday was December 24, which was also the day his Aunt Helen died in a car crash when he was seven.
     That was a very sad thing for him and he cries a lot now. Charlie is very sensitive but he also has this glorious, cheerful love of people and really wants people to be happy. He makes friends with Sam and Patrick, who are both seniors. They are not dating, but are step-brother and step-sister. Actually, Charlie learns that Patrick is gay and is having a secret relationship with a popular football player. Even though the things in this story happened twenty years ago and we all would like to believe that we are a more tolerant society these days just because gay people can get married in some states and that charming boy on GLEE plays an openly gay high school student I think that there must still be a lot of boys like Brad and Patrick who are scared to let people know they are gay in high school. That's why I think The Perks of Being a Wallflower is still an important book.

July 30, 2011

Dear Friend,

     I really like Charlie even though he lives in his head a lot. I guess that's what it means by being a wallflower. Charlie's friends Sam and Patrick introduce him to a lot of things because they are older and can drive. They both go to the Rocky Horror Picture Show every Friday and Patrick plays Frank N Furter and Sam plays Janet, if you know what that means. They also introduce Charlie to alcohol and drugs and some parents might not like their kids to read about that but these kids all have some difficult things they are dealing with and checking out with those things probably makes it easier.. Charlie is in love with Sam and he tells her that but she tells him not to think of her that way and they are friends. Charlie gives really thoughtful, excellent presents to his friends, like giving Mary Elizabeth $40 to print her 'zine, Punk Rocky, in color. Mary Elizabeth and Charlie start dating but she is older and likes exposing Charlie to things like Billie Holiday and e.e. cummings then talking about it more than she really likes being with Charlie and talking to him. Because he is a wallflower Charlie doesn't know how to tell her how much he really dislikes this and things go pretty badly when his true feelings finally are known.
     I think that The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a good book to read if you feel alone or different or weird, which I think pretty much all teenagers feel at sometime or another. I think that it is even better to read if you are not a teenager because then you can be reminded of those times when you are reading it but also realize that things do get better when you get older. Small things seem like such a big deal to Charlie and his friends, but that really is how it is for most teenagers. They tend to live in pretty small worlds that are mostly circumscribed.

August 1, 2011

Dear Friend,

     I think I've pretty much told you everything about The Perks of Being a Wallflower that I can. But I would like to show you some of Charlie's writing, or I guess really it's the writing of Stephen Chbosky who is the author, so I will put some quotes in here that I liked.

     One thing Charlie thinks while he is looking at pictures of his parents when they were young is that "people in the photographs always seem a lot happier than you are. . . I just hope that I remember to tell my kids that they are as happy as I look in my old photographs. And I hope they believe me."
     
Once, when he was having a really tough time Charlie said something that I thought was really true and important. He said, 

     I just wish God or my parents or Sam or my sister or someone would just tell me what's wrong with me. Just tell me how to be different in a way that makes sense. To make this all go away. And disappear. I know that's wrong because it's my responsibility, and I know that things get worse before they get better because that's what my psychiatrist says, but this is a worse that feels too big.

Another thing about Charlie is that, even though he is having some tough times and crying a lot and sometimes having panic attacks and blacking out, he has a pretty good outlook and attitude about things and kind of sees the big picture, which maybe helps him not get stuck in his small world in the end. One night while he is looking out his window he thinks, 

     Sometimes, I look outside and I think that a lot of other people have seen this snow before. Just like I think that a lot of other people have read those books before. And listened to those songs.
     I wonder how they feel tonight. 
     I guess what I'm saying is that this all feels pretty fmailiar. But it's not mine to be familiar about. I just know that another kid has felt this. This one time when it's peaceful outside, and you're seeing things move, and you don't want to, and everyone is asleep. And all the books you've read have been read by other people. And all the songs you've loved have been heard by other people. And that girl that's pretty to you is pretty to other people. And you know that if you looked at these facts when you were happy you would feel great because you are describing "unity."
     It's like when you are excited about a girl and you see a couple holding hands, and you feel so happy for them. And other times you see the same couple, and they make you so mad. And all you want is to always feel happy for them because you know that if you do, then it means you're happy too.

     I actually kind of like the way he thinks, even though he is suffering and having a hard time. I really understand why The Perks of Being a Wallflower is such a popular book that sells a lot of copies. And why they might teach it in schools. In fact, I am going to leave you with Charlie's last words,

     So, if this does end up being my last letter, please believe that things are good with me, and even when they're not, they will be soon enough.
     And I will believe the same about you.

Love always, 
     books4yourkids.com




8.19.2011

Mable Riley: A Reliable Record of Humdrum Peril & Romance by Marthe Jocelyn, 288 pp, RL 5

Oh how I love Mabel Riley: A Reliable Record of Humdrum, Peril and Romance by Marthe Jocelyn.  Set in Canada in 1901, and with a protagonist who aspires to be a writer someday, the comparisons with Lucy Maude Montgomery's beloved Anne Shirley are unavoidable and apt. While Montgomery's Anne books start in 1878 and span nine books and forty-two years in the main character's life, we only get a glimpse into three months of the life of Mabel Riley, but an amazing three months they are! As we learn from the "identification" page in the front of the novel, which poses as a diary, Mabel Riley is a forward looking girl. Besides listing her hat and glove size, birthday and hair color ("I wish I could say raven but really it's dung-beetle brown") we learn that a person she finds noteworthy is Miss Nellie Blye. Blye was a pioneering female journalist of the time who is most noted for her record-breaking trip around the world that followed the path of Phileas Fogg (Around the World in Eighty Days, Jules Verne) and for faking insanity in order to study a mental institution from within, eventually exposing the inhuman treatment and conditions of the women being held there. And finally, after the prompt titled "Wish:" Mabel writes, "To see the world and have the world see me!" This should give you a pretty good idea of what you are in for, but even so, I was surprised and delighted by Mabel and her adventures. 

On Friday, August 30, 1901, fourteen year old Mabel Riley and her older sister Viola leave their home in Ambler's Corner and travel to Sellerton where Viola will take the post of teacher in the one room school where Mabel will take her eighth grade examination and assist with the younger scholars. The two will board in the home of the Goodhands, a farming family. As they are disembarking, Mabel notices a young lady stepping off the train only to be greeted with a shout and a fierce hug from her beau. The hug turns into a kiss and the two are promptly accosted by a woman with a "hefty bosom and a stern look" who scolds and jabs the couple with her parasol. This scene, early in the book, is a perfect example of the world Mabel is living in as well as a harbinger of things to come. Even in this small town, social customs are being challenged and liberties are being taken by the young. Mabel and Viola settle in with the Goodhands and their twenty year old son, Alfred. On her first Sunday in Sellerton, the sisters are visited by many of parents of students at the Sellerton school who have come to the Goodhands to appraise the new teacher. The first visitor is Mrs Forrest, the parasol wielding woman from the train station, who makes her displeasure known from the start, telling Viola that she was not happy to hear that a woman had been hired to fill the position previously held only by men. Viola answers her with, "I expect there will be more women every year training to be teachers. Times are changing, it seems." To which Mrs Forrest sniffs, "We're not pleased with the notion of change." Before she has even started teaching, Viola faces a formidable foe. However, in the end, Mrs Forrest turns out to be Mabel's foe, not Viola's.

Shortly after arriving in Sellerton, Mabel begins her romantic novel with characters inspired by Helen and Philip, the lovers at the train station. Mabel's story is entertaining and her writing exciting if a bit florid at times, but is most interesting how, while meant as an entertainment for her friend Hattie back in Ambler's Corner, it turns out to be parallel to the lives of those she comes to know in Sellerton. One of the people Mabel meets and is instantly taken with but also troubled by, is the local "widow," Mrs Rattle, who lives down the road in a cottage she has named "Silver Lining." Although the other women in town snub her, Mrs Goodhand, due to a sense of Christian Duty, sends her a loaf of cornbread every Sunday and Mabel takes on the role of delivery girl. The two bond instantly when Mrs Rattle confesses that she never eats the hard, dry corn bread, but instead feeds it to her ducks. They bond further when Mabel spies Mrs Rattle's Underwood typewriter and learns that she had been a journalist but was fed up with the society column she was forced to write. When Mrs Rattle asks Mabel to help her serve tea at the next meeting of her book group Mabel is excited and honored. Her good feelings turn to fear when she realizes that the book group is a front for the meeting of suffragists hoping to improve the working conditions of the women at the Bright Creek Cheese Factory, owned by the Forrests. Mabel is saddened by the stories the women, including Mrs Rattle who has taken up a job there, tell of their long days with few breaks and fines for tardiness and talking, but she is also horrified when the women talk of striking to call attention to their plight.

Mabel struggles with her fear of the adult situations she has gotten herself into as well as the knowledge that her actions could jeopardize her sister's teaching post, the salary from which is crucial to the welfare of her widowed mother and four siblings at home. She desperately wants to do the right thing but is constantly reminded of the negative attention she draws to herself and the difficulty she has already made for her sister as well as the Goodhands, who sell their milk to the Bright Creek Cheese Factory. One of the reasons Mabel is such a wonderful character is that, much like Anne Shirley, she is an iconoclast who, through her actions and beliefs makes the world, or her small corner of it, a better place. On top of it all, Mabel (or Marthe Jocelyn) is a thoughtful and descriptive writer. While reflecting on the death of Mrs Goodhand's father, Mabel remembers her own father who only recently died and reflects on the nature of memory itself. She writes, "I do remember the sudden hole of not having him. The sound of my mother's leaky sniffling in the night, the discovery of his cap on its nail a month after he died, the charred tobacco in his pipe, sucked dry by his very own breath that was not breathing anymore." When Mabel is forbidden from visiting Mrs Rattle and feeling distressed by this she writes, "Viola thinks I'm sulking, but it's not so simple as that. I am forlorn and thwarted. Like holding a pitcher full of feelings and having nowhere to pour." I don't think I've ever read a better description of an emotional state than this one, in children's or adult literature.

However, my favorite passage comes at the end of the book when Mrs Rattle and Mabel are saying their goodbyes. Sensing Mabel is about to cry, Cora says to her, "Dear Mabel Riley, when I was your age, I knew nothing beyond lessons in French and drawing with my governess. I was filled to the brim with other people's knowledge. I would have made a good parrot, but my head was as empty as this room. That is why I find you so admirable, Mabel. You are already asking questions and seeking answers. I wish you had been my friend when I was fourteen so that I had not wasted years having a lazy mind." While there were times in the course of the novel where it seemed that involving Mabel in her causes was reckless of Mrs Rattle, ultimately these women were living in times when seemingly reckless behavior was what ultimately resulted in expanding their freedoms. I think that is one of the most subtle and important aspects of this book. Marthe Jocelyn finds a way to create a magnificent character and tell an exciting story while opening young reader's eyes to the hardships and injustices faced by women and ways that society and individuals faced the modernization of their worlds in the last century.



Readers who like this book will also enjoy two of my (other) favorites: 
A Drowned Maiden's Hair by Laura Amy Schlitz and Nancy Springer's wonderful Enola Holmes series about a very determined, intelligent girl going against the social strictures of Victorian England.

8.15.2011

The Fabled Fourth Graders of Aesop Elementary School by Candace Fleming, 192 pp, RL 3




The Fabled Fourth Graders of Aesop Elementary by Candace Fleming is nothing short of brilliant. Everyone has heard of Aesop and his fables and, if nothing else, most people know the big three: the tortoise and the hare (slow and steady wins the race), the story of the ant and the grasshopper (there is time for work and time for play) and the story of the lion and the mouse (a kindness is never wasted.) But how many others can you actually recall? Of course, we have two fabulous picture books to keep these fables fresh in our minds. Arnold Lobel's Caldecott winning collection Fables from 1980 and Jerry Pinkney's gorgeous, wordless Caldecott winner from 2010, The Lion and the Mouse are wonderful for story time. However, the most popular and widely read retellings of the fables are for very young readers while the messages in these stories are pertinent for readers of all ages and probably best suited to the target audience of Fleming's superb book.

In The Fabled Fourth Graders of Aesop Elementary each chapter features a different character and ends with a moral first popularized by Aesop. For those of you interested, a great list of Aesop's fables and morals can be found at Fairy Tales, Fables and Stories. In the first chapter, "The Principle Struggles," we learn that the soon-to-be fourth graders at Aesop elementary have a reputation and it is not a good one. Fleming has a Dickensian gift for naming her characters and I suspect she had many a good laugh as she wrote this book and chose the names. Mrs Struggles, the principal, is in a desperate situation without a teacher to take on the fourth grade and only a day before school starts. That is, until Mr Jupiter shows up at the last minute with a list of credentials that would make Maria Montessori and Indiana Jones feel inadequate. He has a degree in nanothermal economics from Dummer University, worked as a translator for Big Foot, collected mummified cats in Egypt and discovered the lost city of Atlantis. Mr Jupiter has taught Swahili as a second language at Dooglehorn Elementary in Switzerland, hula dancing at Balderdash Academy for Boys in London, organic geochemisty at Harvard and has been the head tetherball coach at Matilda Jane's School for Prim and Proper Girls in Las Vegas. On top of that, once in the classroom he exhibits a wonderful creativity, patience and generosity in dealing with the unruly bunch of troublemakers he teaches.

And what a bunch of troublemakers it is! Also amusingly and aptly named, we have Bernadette Bragadoccio, Humphrey Parrot, Lenny Wittier, Jackie Jumpbaugh, Amisha Spelwadi, Victoria Sovaine and Rose Clutterdorf are among the many students who exemplify the various morals of Aesop's fables. But my favorite, and the one kids will not get the full humor of, is Stanford Binet, a conscientious, well behaved, forward thinking child who has his eye on a college education. In the chapter titled "Dance Stanford, Dance," practicing for the fall musical with the traveling drama teacher Miss Playwright leads to unexpected results while also teaching that "It it wise to prepare today for the wants of tomorrow." With six weeks to prepare, Stanford spends every moment he can find practicing while his classmates think it's much too soon to worry about the performance. Being the only one who knows his part on the night of the performance, Stanford steals the show then rushes off to work on a book report that's due in six weeks. Another great story involves Calvin Tallywong who, exhausted by the hard work of fourth grade, gets his wish to return to kindergarten. The moral, "Be careful what you wish for - it might come true," is wonderfully illuminated by Calvin's horrible experience when he is sent to the kindergarten class to be a helper but is mistaken for a new student and treated like a baby.

I could go on with all the clever, funny ways that Flemming finds to illustrate Aesop's fables, the stories are so fun to share, but I won't. With short chapters, The Fabled Fourth Graders of Aesop Elementary makes for a great read out loud but also an easy read for kids ready to move from Magic Tree House-type books into something a little more difficult. And, far from being a loosely connected series of stories, The Fabled Fourth Graders of Aesop Elementary does have a story arc that includes a budding romance between Mr Jupiter and the once mousy-but-strict librarian, Miss Paige Turner. There is also a mystery, the seed of which is planted in the very first chapter of the book when Mr Jupiter reveals that he attended fifth grade at Aesop Elementary, but blanches when Mrs Struggles asks who his teacher was. We learn why in the final chapter of the book when Mr Jupiter reveals that he has been invited by the International Space Academy to establish a colony on Mars. However, his plans change when Mr Jupiter's old fifth grade teacher, Mr Kinderschamaker, returns to Aesop Elementary to fill the vacated fifth grade teaching spot. Mr Jupiter finally stands up to the teacher who terrorized him and, in the process secures himself a job at Aesop for the following year as well as another great book from Candace Fleming!

The Fabled Fifth Graders of Aesop Elementary School


Readers who enjoy this book might also like Louis Sachar's Wayside School books:
Sideways Stories from Wayside School by Louis Sachar: Book CoverWayside School Gets a Little Stranger by Louis Sachar: Book Cover



Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart by Candace Fleming: Book CoverCandace Fleming is a diverse writers who's newest book, Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart, which is filled with fascinating facts and photos about this trailblazing American hero.











Lincolns: A Scrapbook Look at Abraham and MaryFleming is also the author of the stunning The Lincolns: A Scrapbook Look at Abraham and Mary, which I reviewed in 2009.










On top of that, she is a fabulous picture book author with three of my story time favorites, the bunny tales, Muncha! Muncha! Muncha! and Tippy-Tippy-Tippy, Hide, and the much lauded Clever Jack Takes the Cake,  all of which are illustrated by the marvelous G Brian Karas.

Muncha! Muncha! Muncha!Tippy-Tippy-Tippy, Hide!Clever Jack Takes the Cake

8.12.2011

Swindle, by Gordon Korman 251 pp, RL 4


A little bit like the movie "Oceans 11" for kids, Gordon Korman's Swindle starts with a twelve-year-old boy with a big chip on his shoulder who is out to right a wrong and get back what's his. It's his drive, intellect and ability to bring people together that makes the heist work and watching it all come together and biting your nails as they pull it off makes for a fast paced, funny and fun read.

Griffin Bing has always been "the Man With a Plan" and he is furious that the town council of Cedarville won't even give him and his friends the time of day. Without even looking at the plans for the stake park the kids have drawn up to be put on a soon-to-be-vacant piece of land, they vote to build the Cedarville Museum. As a way to show them that they can't push kids around and disregard them, Griffin comes up with another plan. The soon-to-be vacant lot is home to the soon-to-be demolished, crumbling Rockford Mansion. Griffin invites all of the sixth grade to join him in spending the night in the Rockford Mansion before the wrecking ball smashes it to bits the next morning. He doesn't miss a detail, from the cover lie to give to parents, what supplies to bring and how to enter the boarded up building. When Griffin's best friend Ben is the only other kid who shows up, even after the class bully, Darren Vader, dared everyone to go, he deals with his frustration by exploring the dark house in the middle of the night. Bumping into a desk, he triggers the mechanism of a secret drawer where he finds a very old baseball card. The next morning the boys are awakened by the sound (and feel) of the wrecking ball smashing into the house. The boys flee the scene as quickly as they can, grabbing their belongings and the card and head over to Palomino's Emporium of Collectibles to see what the card is worth.

S. Wendell Palomino, soon to be known as Swindle, is the less than reputable proprietor of the Emporium who explains to the boys why the card is not valuable and offers to take it off their hands for $100. Griffin talks him up to $120 and the boys leave with their cash. When Griffin finds out, via a televised news conference, that the card he sold Palomino is actually a rare Babe Ruth card that might bring in over a million dollars at auction, he is beyond angry. For years Griffin's family has been in financial decline, ever since his father quit his engineering job to dedicate his time to inventing an elaborate device for picking fruit. That card could have been his family's ticket to financial freedom and Griffin is not going to let it slip away so easily. When Griffin confronts Swindle with his deception, Palomino has his lies in order and Griffin leaves the store as angry as ever. He becomes the Man With the Plan again and this time he is going to break into Palomino's Emporium and, using his dad's blow torch, liberate his card. He only has to make it past the murderous doberman, Luthor, disarm the elaborate alarm system, break the safe and get out of there. How the boys execute the plan and what they do when the card isn't in the safe is pretty believable and and exciting. 

What they decide to do next is where the "Ocean's 11" reference comes in. Utilizing the various talents of his classmates, Griffin comes up with a plan to break into Palomino's house and get the card back. The kids and their various talents make up a motley crew. There is Savannah, the dog whisperer, Antonia, the rock climber, Melissa, the computer expert, Logan, the actor and Ben, the "tight spaces specialist." When Darren Vader sneaks into the team meeting and threatens to rat them out, he becomes a dangerous but necessary member of the team as well. Executing the heist takes up several chapters of the book and the tale is filled with twists and turns that kept me reading well into the night. Korman does a fine job of keeping the story as realistic as possible, although the character development does not go too deep in this fast paced novel. What I love most about Swindle is Griffin Bing and his insistence that he be taken seriously by adults. Instead of the usual kid's mystery where they stumble upon a crime, old or new, and decide to figure it out, Swindle begins with a kid as the victim of a crime and deciding to take action. 


The gang returns in Zoobreak, where Griffin and Ben help Savannah get back Cleopatra, her stolen monkey that has become part of an illegal floating zoo. In Framed a new principal, also a football fanatic, has turned middle school into boot camp. When his precious Superbowl ring is stolen from a display case on campus and Griffin's retainer is left in its place, Griffin is hauled off to a state school for juvenile delinquents. For once Griffin isn't the Man With the Plan. Book 6, Jackpot, comes out January, 2014!


THE SWINDLE BOOKS in order:



Source: Purchased



8.08.2011

Heir Apparent by Vivian Vande Velde, 315 pp, RL 5

I came across Heir Apparent by Vivian Vande Velde while shelving in the Teen Department at work several years ago and was so intrigued by the premise that I snapped it up and read it right away. And loved it. Although technology changes at light speed these days, Heir Apparent, which was published in 2002, employs video gaming as part of the plot and still feels contemporary and relevant almost a deacde later. Despite the gaming aspect of the plot, Heir Apparent is really a fantasy novel with a medieval setting with a contemporary, wise cracking, fast thinking fourteen year old heroine. The book begins with a printout of a gift certificate for $50.00 to one of the many Rasmussem Enterprises Gaming Centers and is made out to one Giannine Bellisario. This is a birthday gift from her father, who had his secretary call and ask Giannine what she wanted as a gift. Raised by her grandmother, Giannine has a few choice comments to make about both of her absentee parents as well as the parental nature of the futuristic society she lives in, but, ultimately, this is an adventure story and not a social commentary.

On the particular day that Giannine has chosen to use her gift certificate, CPOC (Citizens to Protect Our Children) happens to be protesting in front of the Rasmussem Gaming Center and the remote operated, computer driven bus will "not allow a minor to disembark  into a situation that might be hazardous," the polite and "only lightly metallic" voice tells her as she approaches her stop. Giannine outsmarts the bus, disembarks one stop later, claiming she is going to the art museum, muttering under her breath as she exits the bus, "Your mother was a toaster oven." As she enters the building, CPOC protesters accost her with signs that read "MAGIC = SATANISM," "VIOLENCE BEGETS VIOLENCE" and "INAPPROPRIATE FOR OUR CHILDREN," as well as quoting Bible verse at her, "complete with yeas and thous and wicked ones." The book ends with a page that reads, "If you've decided that this book and others like it are dangerous, clip along this line, glue this page to cardboard, and fasten onto a stick. Start your own protest demonstration!" Below the line reads, "Don't corrupt the minds of our children! Down with fantasy!" A pertinent premise almost a decade ago when Harry Potter and other fantasy novels for children (as well as games) were coming under attack, the argument against electronic games is still relevant, especially with the Supreme Court's recent ruling rejecting a ban on violent video games for children. However, Heir Apparent, the game Giannine decides to play, is very tame by today's standards. It could not be considered a "first person shooter game," and the violence is mostly limited to the Heir Apparent of the game being killed off by other characters hoping to gain the throne. However, there are a few battles from the ramparts of the castle and the beheading of the Barbarian king, but I am getting ahead of myself.

Giannine picks a Total Immersion game which requires her to be hooked up to all sorts of wires and connected to the computer while she relaxes on a couch and challenges her to last three days within the world of the game. During this time she must find a stolen treasure, save the kingdom from a barbarian invasion, make up a poem for the statue of St Bruce the Warrior Poet without having her head cut off, wrangle an army of ghosts, outsmart her jealous half-brothers and steal a crown from a vicious dragon. Of course, Giannine knows none of this at the start of the game and it is fascinating to watch the plot (of the game and the book) unfold as she plays her way through the story, trying to stay alive and unravel the connections between people and places that will unlock the challenges that she must face to reach the end of the game. Shortly after she starts the game in which she is named Janine St Jehan, a smelly sheep herder who discovers she is the illegitimate child of the dead king who named her heir to the throne, her game is interrupted. As she stands in the throne room meeting the Queen and her three half brothers, a white robed figure who turns out to be Nigel Rasmussem himself, floats out of the sky calling her real name. He warns her not to panic but also tells her that CPOC protesters have broken into the building and damaged some of the equipment leaving her in a compromised situation. Safety measures have been taken, but there is a risk of "fatal overload." Not only does Giannine have a limited amount actual of time to play through the three days of the game to completion, she must play to the end and win. Not wanting to cause her to panic, which would make completion of the game even more difficult, Rasmussem gives her a few words of advice, cryptically saying, as he floats upwards, "Kenric and Sister Mary Ursula don't work well together. And next time, don't forget the ring."

As Giannine says, "The point of Heir Apparent is to make good decisions, choose capable and trustworthy friends and advisers, and survive long enough to be crowned king." Watching her work her way through the game making discoveries about who to trust and who to manipulate is fascinating. As I read Heir Apparent for the second time, I kept having this flip-floppy-meta-feeling as I followed Giannine through the plot of the game while simultaneously thinking about the plot of the book, especially how the book would read if it was a straight fantasy novel without the conceit of the video game woven through it. It is as though Vivian Vande Veld has invited the reader into the writing process of Heir Apparent  itself through the unfolding plot of the game Heir Apparent. As Giannine plays her way through the game she figure out how to get to key events that will allow the plot to take her, ultimately, to the throne room in three days time. Each time she makes her way farther into the plot, dying and starting over frequently, she carries with her knowledge from her previous game lives (as well as some knowledge from her actual life) and she must choose how to use this information while at the same time remembering that, in this newest incarnation of the game, she knows things she is not supposed to know. The more I write about Heir Apparent the more brilliant and genius I think Vande Velde is. And I haven't even told you about all of the amazing and intriguing plot points and characters that she creates. However, to do that would rob you of the surprise of discovery that makes this book even more fun to read. 

8.05.2011

The Name of This Book is Secret by Pseudonymous Bosch, illustrated by Gilbert Ford, 360 pp RL 4


The Secret Series, as this quintet of books (the fifth book to be released on September 20, 2011) is called, began in 2007 with The Name of this Book is Secret, authored by the mysterious Pseudonymous Bosch (which reminds me of the imaginative Dutch painter Heironymous Bosch) and perfectly illustrated by the wonderful Gilbert FordThe Name of this Book is Secret was published the same year as Trenton Lee Stewart's Mysterious Benedict Society and the two have some similarities - intrepid, quirky main characters who uncover the mysterious machinations of devious, maniacal adults. And, of course, both series owe a nod to Lemony Snicket and his Series of Unfortunate Events. However, of the three, The Secret Series has to be my favorite. Bosch's narration and frequent interruption of the story to protect the reader, give advice and share background information on the characters as well as word definitions is entertaining and the appendix he provides at the back of the book is brilliant. But, it is the characters of Cass and Max-Ernest (can't help but think of the German Surrealist artist Max Ernst) that I love best about the book.

Chapter One in The Name of this Book is Secret looks a lot like a secret CIA document that has been released to the public, consisting entirely of XXXXXs (and punctuation.) Chapter One and a Half is titled "Apologia," complete with humorous definition of the word and explanation, of sorts, for the level of secrecy. From there, we are cautiously introduced to Cass, who never goes anywhere without her backpack. She is a prepared survivalist and is always on the lookout for potential disasters. She has even been known to ask the school principal, Mrs Johnson, to evacuate the premises when a toxic spill is suspected. Cass's mother Mel is raising her alone, with the help of Grandpa Larry and Grandpa Wayne, neither of whom are actually her grandfathers. Larry and Wayne run an antiques store out of an old firehouse and this is the setting for the start of the mystery when Gloria, a local real estate agent, drops by with a box of odds and ends from a house she is selling that once belonged to a magician. Each book in The Secret Series has a link to one of the five sense and in The Name of this Book is Secret the sense of smell is at the center of the plot. Amidst the junk that Gloria leaves at the firehouse, Cass uncovers an old wooden box with the words The Symphony of Smells etched across the top and ninety-nine small vials of liquids, powders, plant life, shards of wood, even a human hair - all of which have a distinct smell that can elicit a specific response, especially for people who are synesthetic. Synesthesia is a condition in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to an automatic, involuntary experience in a second sensory of cognitive pathway. So, a synesthetic might assign colors to numbers and letters. Another might assign colors, numbers or letters to smells, as in The Name of this Book is Secret.

The discovery of the box and her exploration of it leads Cass to befriend Max-Ernest, a compulsive talker and joke teller who has never gotten a laugh out of anyone. Max-Ernst is a child of two divorced parents who, believing that a child should be raised by two parents in one home, have divided their house down the middle and expressed their widely different design tastes accordingly. A strange alliance, they set off for the magician's house in search of more details. Their hunt leads them to ultimately rescue a synesthetic classmate who has been kidnapped by the Masters of the Midnight Sun, a secret organization searching for the ultimate secret - immortality. Cass and Max-Ernest learn the sad story of the magician, Pietro Bergamo, who came to America from Italy when he was nine along with his twin, Luciano. They boys were also synesthetes and were taken in by a circus where they developed an act based on their secret skills. This attracted the attention of one Ms. Mauvais, Master of the Midnight Sun, who stole away Luciano for her nefarious purposes. When the children meet up with Ms Mauvais and Dr L many decades have passed but neither of them has aged. Bosch brings together a multitude of influences and ideas in The Name of this Book is Secret, but the informative, friendly tone of the narrator keeps the story from ever being weighed down with details. This series of books has a HUGE following and are always flying off the shelves at the store where I work, as are the Series of Unfortunate Events and Mysterious Benedict Society books, all of which have detailed, unique characters who are intelligent, if not always lucky, brave and ultimately able to outsmart slightly demented adults with elaborate plans. If you are a writer out there looking for a plot, think about it. However, be warned, I am certain that writing books like those by Bosch, Snicket and Stewart may seem much easier than it actually is...

And, happiest of all, as a major skeeball fan, I was THRILLED to discover the website for The Secret Series, which has a wonderful selection of carnival games related to the book, including a computerized version of skeeball that allows you to win really cool downloads of printable paper toys!!

The next four books in the series are as follows, and feature sound, taste (with a delicious twist and devious use for chocolate) sight and touch.
If You're Reading This, It's Too Late (Secret Series #2) by Pseudonymous Bosch: Book CoverThis Book Is Not Good for You (Secret Series #3) by Pseudonymous Bosch: Book Cover
This Isn't What It Looks Like (Secret Series #4) by Pseudonymous Bosch: Book CoverYou Have to Stop This by Pseudonymous Bosch: Book Cover