The Girl Who Could Fly, written by Victoria Forester, 328 pp, RL 4

I as intrigued by Victoria Forester's The Girl Who Could Fly the first time I saw Kevin Hawke's haunting cover art, at left. When the paperback edition with Jason Chan's markedly different but equally enthralling cover art arrived, I knew I had to bump this book up to the top of my TBR pile. I tried more than once to get hooked by this book and just couldn't get past the hokey, drawling dialect of the narrator as the life of the girl who could fly was unveiled. Born in Lowland Country, Piper McCloud was the late-in-life, only child of Betty and Joe McCloud, farmers who believed in doing things the way they have always been done and tolerating no deviance when it occurred. Piper, however, is one massive deviation from the norm. Not only do women not give birth at Betty's age, but Piper seemed be unusually rambunctious. Buoyant both literally and figuratively, Piper finds that she can fly. Her thoughts seem to fly as well, and she is always sharing her crazy ideas (do cows have feelings and if so, is it wrong to eat them?) with her parents, much to their distress. However, some fifty pages into the story, Piper, who has been home schooled and kept away from her peers because of her differences, gets to go to the Fourth of July Picnic where she unwittingly lets her freak flag fly and the story really takes flight.

After the rest of the town sees Piper shoot up into the air to catch a fly ball, her secret is out and government agents are rolling up in their black SUVs with tinted windows. Just before her life changes forever, Piper hears a disembodied voice in her room offering to help her. The hoopla outside distracts her and the source of the voice is lost in the hubbub as the McClouds learn that there is a place for children like Piper and the sleek, beautiful Dr Letitia Hellion wants to take her there. I'm a widely read adult, so I knew right away (ok - Jason Chan's cover cued me in as well) that Dr Hellion has no intentions of improving Piper's quality of life. My adult-reader-mind also knew that Dr Hellion had some kind of secret, probably from childhood, that drove her to do what she did. And what did she do? Dr Hellion founded and ran the Institute of Normalcy, Stability, And Non-Exceptionality or I.N.S.A.N.E. in this, Forester has created a compelling, very visual setting. A small shack in the mountains, the institute actually is made up of thirteen underground floors, each dedicated to a different aspect of dealing with that which threatens the normalcy and stability of the world. Piper sees none of this as she takes the elevator ride down thirteen levels to the tiered level where the children live, learn and play. Entranced by Dr Hellion and convinced by her that flying is hurtful to those around her, Piper is excited to finally be with other children and attending school. She quickly learns that her "classmates" have special abilities of their own, from speed, strength and telekinesis to the ability to shrink, control the weather and electricity and, in Conrad Harrington III, extreme intelligence. Conrad quickly positions himself as Piper's nemesis and makes her life as miserable as possible, finally almost getting her expelled from the institute when he forces her to use her flying abilities or die.

At this point in the book, I was not sure where Forester was going with her story but I was on board and along for the ride, wherever it went. While the friction between Piper and Conrad makes for some great scenes, the real tension arises when Conrad reveals his reasons for being so cruel. 


 Conrad, being the braniac that he is, has figured out that Dr Hellion is drugging the children in an attempt to make them docile and uninterested in using their special talents. She is doing everything short of torture to make then normal, stabile, and non-exceptional. She also has floors and floors full of animals and plants who she is torturing into submission. Piper learns this inadvertently and from that moment on she and Conrad spend their time planning the children's escape.  When that goes awry, Piper is submitted to a hideous form of torture in a device the resembles a giant cookie cutter, which takes a bit of the edge off the horrific nature of Dr Hellion's device. This scene struck me as only a few notches below the scene in The Golden Compass when Lyra realizes that Mrs Coulter is separating children and their dæmons, in terms of adults treating children like objects to be experimented on. It takes weeks and weeks for Piper to be "rehabilitated" and returned to her classmates, but eventually she is. Her mind has been wiped clean and her legs have been mangled so that she has to walk with canes. Her classmates are devastated to realize that Piper can no longer be looked to as a leader, as they have been waiting for her return so that they can begin planning their escape again. It is Piper's broken state that rouses Jasper, the one child who's special power is unknown, to remember that he has the power to heal. The kids unite and kick the adults out of the institute then take the elevator up to see the sun and breathe fresh air for the first time in months. Dr Hellion is waiting and a fight ensues and her own special power is revealed. However, unwilling to rejoice in her difference, she instead falls to her death over the icy mountains seen on the cover of the book.

The final part of the book finds Piper back home with her parents and Conrad living in her spare bedroom, his father and mother having renounced him. The other kids have all found jobs living out their dreams, dreams that Piper encouraged them to foster while they were in the institute together. They all come together at the McCloud farm to celebrate the fourth of July and, as a baseball team headed up by Conrad, they put the other team to shame. A final aspect of the book that I found very refreshing was how Forester chose to tie up the loose end that is the disembodied voice in Piper's room from the start of the story. The voice, named J., shows up at the institute just after Piper has been placed in the giant cookie cutter and begins to help her to escape. Piper refuses to leave without the rest of the kids and J. is forced to leave, telling her he will find a way to return and rescue them all. J. finds Piper at the end of the book and tells her that there is a secret place where she and the other kids can go and fit in and be safe. He also shares more information with her, although we are left to guess what it is, knowing only that Piper found it too weighty to share even with Conrad. Forester drops enough clues about J. and Letitia Hellion to suggest a link, but, like Conrad, she ultimately leaves the reader to connect the dots on his or her own, and I like that!

Any reader, girls especially, with a taste for fantasy, will love The Girl Who Could Fly.

Readers who liked this book might also enjoy:

drizzle by Kathleen Van Cleve
Savvy by Ingrid Law

Source: Purchased


Now I am Big! AND I Can Do It MYSELF! written by Stephen Krensky and illustrated by Sara Gillingham

More fantastic books continue to brighten the shelves of the board book section at the bookstore where I work as Abrams Appleseed Fall 2012 titles are released. As with their Spring 2012 titles (click here for past reviews) Abrams Appleseed titles consistently feature elegant artwork, attention to design and a thoughtful, fresh approach to conventional topics. Janik Coat's Hippopposites is a perfect example of an old, almost overdone concept that feels brilliantly new in her hands. While a toddler's steps toward independence may seem like well worn ground in picture books, I honestly can't think of a single title, especially in the board book format, that presents these steps in a way that little listeners will recognize and revel in the way that author, Stephen Krensky does. Add to the wonderful words the crisp, colorful and just a little bit retro illustrations of Sara Gillingham, award-winning art director, designer and author of over fifteen books for children (for more of her work, read The Changing Face of Board Books & Board Books Worth Buying) and you have board books that will get read so many times they might actually start to wear out.

Now I am Big features a little boy and beings, "I used to be short. Now I am tall," and continues, "I used to be slow. Now I play ball." From the bathtub to the playground, the garden to the playroom, Gillingham marvelously illustrates Krensky's words, presenting scenes that toddlers will recognize immediately and excitedly.

"I can do it by myself!" is a refrain parents hear often and not one that can always be supported or encouraged. In I Can Do It By Myself, Krensky and Gillingham focus on the independent acts toddlers can accomplish on their own and without too much collateral damage. I love the rhyme of the text and what follows is the whole of the book, "When it's time to get dressed, I pick out my clothes. If I'm feeling stuffy, I blow my own nose. If I get hungry, I take a bit bite. When it's time to sleep, I turn out the light. I can ride, I can hide, I can reach a high shelf. Hey, look at me. I can do it myself!" It may seem brief, but remember the audience. Krensky hits all the highlights (although I still can't get my almost-eight-year-old to blow his own nose...) of a toddler's first steps to independence and Gillingham illustrates them wonderfully, even including a little chick toy on every page that little listeners will enjoy looking for.

Be sure not to miss Montessori Number Work and Montessori Letter Work, new from Abrams Appleseed and a great way to introduce these basic learning concepts to your children.

Source: Review Copies

Montessori Letter Work and Montessori Number Work, written by Bobby and June George, illustrated by Alyssa Nassar

Two of my three children attended Montessori preschools, but I have to confess to not paying too much attention to the methods of teaching employed in the classroom. I learned more about the Montessori method reading Montessori Letter Work and Montessori Number Work by Bobby and June George, founders of the Baan Dek Montessori School in Sioux Falls, SD, than I did over the combined years my kids attended these schools. But, that is solely a reflection on me and not the schools or the method... Once again, AbramsAppleseed blazes a new path in the world of board books with these  two titles. And, once again, AbramsAppleseed fulfills their promise to "foster the development of its young readers and engage them and their adults in artful, beautifully conceived books." Montessori Letter Work and Montessori Number Work are both visually appealing and educational in an innovative way that makes perfect sense when reading to and teaching toddlers. 
Both books begin with a letter to parents by Bobby and June George that explains the Montessori method of teaching, which has been successful for over a century now, that focuses on the concrete before the abstract. Numbers are presented as a quantity to count and with a texture to trace that corresponds with the name of the number. TheMontessori method to teaching letters is even more innovative. Learning the sound a letter makes ("b" makes a "buh sound) and the shape of the letter come before learning the name of the letter and how to recite the alphabet. In fact, the letters in Montessori Letter Work are arranged by the motion with which you write the letter rather than alphabetically. Montessori Letter Work provides phonetics to pronounce, a texture to trace and a reference word to provide context.

What makes Montessori Letter Work and Montessori Number Work appeal to kids and adults are the colorful, slightly retro illustrations by Alyssa Nassner. It's hard to make an ABC or 123 book stand out, especially without sacrificing the educational content, by Nassner's artwork and the fantastic book design by Megan Bennett do make these inventive books stand out. From the long, rectangular shape and the tabs in Montessori Number Work to the background of the art, which looks like it was painted on wood, enhancing the tactile aspects of the books, the attention to detail is evident. Add these titles to the list of the only board books your infant will need.

Source: Review Copy

I Love to Sleep AND I Love to Eat, written and illustrated by Amélie Graux

I Love to Sleep and I Love to Eat (the titles alone are perfectly baby-centric) are billed as "Deluxe Trilingual Touch-and-Feel." And, while these two new board books are filled with fantastic touch-and-feely things on every page, and English, French and Spanish words for each baby item depicted, what  really makes these two books deluxe are the crisply modern, elegantly adorable illustrations by Amélie Graux. I have seen plenty of board books in my time and it takes A LOT for one to grab my attention. Not only do Graux's books stand out for their charming artwork, but for the unique style they bring to the otherwise standard, generic (and mostly dull) world of touch-and-feel board books. When it comes to style, Graux's books are leading the way along with Janik Coat's Hippopposites, the only opposites book your child will ever need. Interestingly, both artists are French. Actually, even if your baby doesn't need an opposites book or a book about food or bed, buy these books anyway. They are wonderfully lovely, superbly sturdy and creative in charming new ways. Below are images from both books. Sadly, the tactile aspects don't come through in these images, but even those are outstanding. From the terrycloth bib and the woody feel of the highchair to the shiny plastic representing the glass of a jar of baby food and the sticky feel of a spoonful of peas, each page has something new to offer.

From I Love to Eat  -

From I Love to Sleep -
All the things from baby's bedtime routine are in I Love to Sleep, starting with the fuzzy jammies on the cover. From the bottle and the pacifier to the stuffed toy and textured diaper, the shiny music player and the 3D book with a page that can be turned, everything is here, ending with the glowing nightlight and the satiny sleep sack. I have no doubt reading this book will become part of your nighttime routine.

Here are a few more images from Amélie Graux's website:

Source: Review Copies


N.E.R.D.S. by Michael Buckley with illustrations by Ethen Beavers, 306 pp, RL 4

The first N.E.R.D.S. : National Espionage, Rescue and Defense Society book came out in 2009 and I have to admit to feeling a bit like a jealous sibling when the new baby arrives. You see, my beloved Sisters Grimm series was already up to book seven by the time this new series arrived, and it was so different and foreign. And wouldn't it take away precious time and resources from the first born series? The Sisters Grimm series came to a close in May of 2012 with book nine, The Council of Mirrors and I have yet to read it as I am not ready for it to be over. However, I do feel ready to turn my attention to the new baby and I think I actually kinda like him.

Buckley lets us know right off the bat what kind of series N.E.R.D.S. is going to be, with the great illustrations by comic book artist Ethen Beavers and the fantastic book design from Chad W Beckerman, the amazing creative director for Abrams Books that makes the books read like top secret dossiers and other vital information. In Book 1 in the series, each break represents a different security level and the request to provide various forms of identification from hair to sweat to ear wax (obtained with an elbow) and a laugh from the narrator. Speaking of the narrator of the chapter breaks, s/he also happens to be a former NERDS operative. And speaking of chapters, each one includes the latitude and longitude of the location of the NERDS and hopefully will have readers running to a map (or website, like I did) to log in and find out where the kids are.

But the N.E.R.D.S. series isn't just about fantastic production values and clever extras like the illustration of the author to the left. As he demonstrated in The Sisters Grimm series, Michael Buckley is a great writer, from dialogue to setting to the emotional landscape of his characters. Before we even meet the NERDS, we get to know a bit about their new director and even more about their newest recruit. With a few quick strokes, we learn that Alexander Brand was once a James Bond-type spy who saved the world over and over. However, an injury has left him with a limp, a cane and no desire for a desk job. As General Savage is offering Brand the position of director of the secret, mythical team of child spies (their last director died under "mysterious" circumstances - he jumped out a window that overlooked the shark tank at the local aquarium with a bomb strapped to his chest and three knives in his back...) the men are interrupted with news that Greenland has just slammed into Iceland.

When we first meet fifth grader Jackson Jones he and his buddies are in hiding, about to attack some of the many geeks that make Nathan Hale Elementary School the center of Nerdville, USA. Life is good for Jackson. He's athletic, popular, cute and comes from a family with a similarly gifted brother and father. That all changes when a visit to the orthodontist reveals two complete sets of teeth in Jackson's mouth, one of which must be pulled, leaving him in need of a heinous set of braces that will bring an end to Jackson's days as a Golden Boy and hurtle him into geekdom and beyond. Especially when he discovers that his new headgear-hardware (which does not fit into a football helmet and thus causes him to be cut form the team) is magnetic, attracting all manner of things from "cuff links, belt buckles, hairpins, cafeteria trays, call phones and umbrellas" to trophies, school buses and in one near fatal incident, kebab skewers. Ostracized from his former pack, the absence of a social life allows Jackson to see things that he never noticed before and a spy is born. As his skills increase and his status decreases, Jackson stumbles upon an organization of spies so secret that the Commander in Chief doesn't even know of their existence. At the same time, Jackson gets on the wrong side of the horns of the bull-like Principal Dehaven. Hiding in a locker to avoid those horns, Jackson unwittingly stumbles into the "Playground," the training ground, laboratory and headquarters of  NERDS where he is mistakenly outfitted with upgrades - spy-gear braces made from nanobots that can change into any tool at any time. His code name, Braceface, is one that his pride steadfastly refuses to accept over the course of the story.

What makes this book different and ultimately interesting is the clashing personalities between the team,  Jackson and Agent Brand, who poses as the school janitor. The team, lead by Ruby Peet, code name Pufferfish, understandably hates and refuses to trust Jackson, their former tormentor, despite the fact that they could have wiped the floor with him at any moment - and still can, until he learns his way around the spy game. The team also has a hard time trusting their new director, a man of few words and even fewer compliments. Jackson, despite being knocked down several social pegs at school, still sees himself as superior to the NERDS and makes more than one blunder out of hubris, giving the team even more reasons to want him gone. Jackson's transformation over the course of the book is fascinating, and the moment when he truly understands why the team is filled with animosity for him and how he responds is genuine and rewarding. The fact that the evil villain at the heart of the story is reacting against years of teasing and torment from bullies is a nice wrinkle as well. As a parent, I would be happy to have my child read a book with this level of humanity and complexity, cloaked as it is in spy gear and kids with weird abilities.

In case any kids are reading, I'll dish a little about the spy gear and weird abilities as well as the demented villains. Team leader Ruby Peet is allergic to everything and acts as a walking human detector. She breaks out in hives in the face of a lie, a betrayal or the like. As with all the NERDS, she is a highly trained combatant and takes out Jackson with a back scratcher. Paste eater Duncan Dewey, code name Gluestick, can shoot powerful polymers that allow him to stick to walls. Wheezer, aka Matilda Choi, is an asthmatic with enhanced inhalers that can act as jet packs, flame throwers and torches to cut through metal when needed. Julio Escala, code name Flinch, is a sugar loving, hyperactive force of nature who wears a control panel that gives him super speed and strength. Sometimes he speaks a bit too fast and has to tone down his garbled speech with a twist to his control nob. Finally, there is Heathcliff Hodges. His unfortunately large buck teeth have been treated with a special nano-designed hallucinogenic whitening agent that allows him to control (or wipe) peoples' minds with them. Despite this gear and all the training they've had, they seem to be no match for Dr Jigsaw, the demented scientist (and jigsaw puzzle enthusiast) who is building a mechanism that will allow him to fit all the continents together and reform Pangea, or Dr Jigsaw's boss, a person in a black mask with a ghostly skull face painted on it who goes by the name Simon. Then there is the Hyena, a twelve-year-old former child pageant winner (Georgia Beef Beauty, Little Miss Florida Citrus, California's Canola Oil Charmer, WisconsinWheat Fairy, Dairy Princess of Lawrence, Kansas, and Idaho Spud Queen) who has decided to become a professional assassin. The chapters told from the Hyena's perspective are some of the funniest and deconstruct and poke fun at the conventions of the demented villain or "professional crime boss," as she refers to them. I especially love her description of the four kinds of bosses. With the N.E.R.D.S. series, Buckley has done for boys what he did for girls with the Sisters Grimm series. He has taken a conventional theme (fairy tales, spies) and layered it with complex characters that turn convention on its head, fascinating settings and fast paced action that keeps kids interested and reading.

For more of the great artwork and design that goes into every book in the series, check out these posts at Chad W Beckerman's blog, mishaps and adventures. The Evolution of a N.E.R.D.S Cover is especially interesting. I, for one, had no idea how many prototypes there were before the final. If you like this kind of thing, there are several "Evolution" posts for many of the books Beckerman worked on. I especially love this post, N.E.R.D.S. Behind the Jacket. I didn't know that the hardcovers of a book are called the "case cover." I did know that sometimes, some rare times, a book will have something extra, different or cool on the case cover. All the NERDS books have a different picture of the team under the dust jacket! Click the link to see what lies beneath...

Source: Review Copy and Audio Book (from the Library) read by the fantastic Johnny Heller


Bromeliad Trilogy: Truckers/Diggers/Wings by Terry Prachett RL5

The Bromeliad Trilogy by Terry Pratchett, usually known for his humorous science fiction for adults, is part satire, part parable and all adventure story. My husband and I (mostly my husband) first read these books out loud at bedtime to our older son some eight years ago. Now my husband is reading them out loud to our youngest, who is seven. Long after my son has fallen asleep, my husband can be found reading ahead. In his words, "Pratchett, in his portrayal of the nomes, the little people who are the protagonists, displays the best and worst of human nature, the yearning for simple answers and the wisdom not to embrace them completely and slide into complacency." The main characters in these stories are a group of four inch high nomes, lead by young Masklin.  In Truckers, Masklin's group of outside nomes joins up with hundreds of other nomes living in a department store (that is going to be demolished in 21 days) who have lived there for so many generations that they no longer remember - or even believe in - life beyond the walls of the store, Arnold Bros. They also do not believe in the existence of outside nomes and Masklin has to convince them of his reality before any movement can begin. Living this way for so long, the nomes have come to believe that everything contained in the store is the entirety of their world, a world which was created by the great Arnold Bros. They don't even realize that Arnold Bros is short for Arnold Brothers and nothing more than the name of the men who founded the store. Of course, in a way, these men did create the world - the world that the nomes know. Masklin brings with him a mysterious black box that has been handed down from generation to generation, told that it is of great importance despite the fact that is seems to be an inert lump. The story connected to this Black Box, as well as the origins of the nomes, has been long forgotten. 

Truckers follows the nomes through their shock and disbelief that their world is about to be destroyed and that there is a world beyond their world. Their eventual exodus from the Store, along with the mysterious Black Box that begins to tell the story of their past and their future when near a source of eletricity, is a rude awakening, but met with ingenuity and creativity as well as determination on the part of Masklin to save his people whether they want to be saved or not. The Black Box also shuts off at times, telling the nomes that they have to prove they are intelligent beings and not clever animals.  Diggers  follows their struggle to survive outside on their own and come to terms with the rent in their belief system and learn how to drive a backhoe to further their escape. In Wings, a story that happens concurrently with the events of Diggers, Masklin leaves the nomes in the hands of Nicodemus, a messianic store nome, so that he can pursue Grandson Richard, the heir to Arnold Bros who has started his own satellite company. Grandson Richard is in Florida to see one of his company's satellites launched into space. If Masklin can get the black box onto the satellite, a message can be sent out into  space and the nomes just might be able to return to their true home. Towards the end of the book there is a remarkable scene where you discover why these phenomenal books are called The Bromeliad Trilogy.

One of the trilogy's greatest strengths is it's depiction of the civilization the nomes have built up over the generations, including an intricate religion based on advertising signs hung about the Store. Reminiscent of Mary Norton's The Borrowers, these books have enough imagination and excitement to keep kids interested and the right amount of humor and philosophical leanings to keep adults and older kids reading.

The three books in one can only be purchased in hardcover at this time, however, it is slightly less expensive than buying the three books individually in paperback and features cover art by a hard to find favorite of mine, S Saelig Gallagher. A brief overview of her work can be found in this review of The Seeing Stick, a picture book by Jane Yolen with new illustrations by the marvelous Daniela Jaglenka Terrazzini, who has most recently designed the absolutely gorgeous covers for the new Penguin Classics Library.

Source: Purchased


Sidekicks, by Jack D Ferraiolo, 309 pp, RL 5

A year ago, I enthusiastically and admiringly reviewed The Big Splash by Jack D Ferraiolo. And, a year ago his second middle grade novel, Sidekicks, was released. Newly issued in paperback, I finally got around to reading (actually, I mostly listened to the audio which is brilliantly read by Ramon de Ocampo and Jack Garrett) Sidekicks and I am amazed to say that I think it is even better than Ferraiolo's debut novel. While I loved The Big Splash and all the humor, creativity and fantastic characters that Ferraiolo packed into that mystery novel, with Sidekicks he takes it to the next level, writing a book that is filled with emotion, excitement, action and romance. Yes, romance. Despite the kid-friendly cartoon cover, there is a fair amount of kissing that goes on in Sidekicks between the thirteen year old stars of this story, which is kicked off with a bit of adolescent embarrassment and angst.

While my main role as a reviewer of books for young readers is to present what I find to be the best in the world of kid's books based on my love of and experience with this corner of the literary world, as a parent who realizes that not everyone can pre-read each book their children read, I feel that I have the secondary role of letting parents know if there are any aspects of a book I review and love that they might want to know about before passing it on. I often feel that giving a book the appropriate reading level (like TEEN) is a singular way of explaining the existence and context of violence, sex, sexuality, profanity, etc in a book, but occasionally I have to spell things out. So, here goes. If you are a parent who does not mind your child reading a story with a romantic relationship as part of the plot, almost everything that occurs in Sidekicks is perfectly appropriate for a child with a fifth grade reading level, which I why I gave this book a "MIDDLE GRADE" rating. The one aspect of the novel that you might like to be forewarned of and possibly talk to your child about before or while s/he is reading this phenomenal book occurs in the first chapter. Bright Boy, the thirteen year old, yellow tights wearing main character in Sidekicks gets an erection while rescuing a beautiful woman who is in shock after being dangled and dropped off the roof of an eighty-story high building. Ferraiolo never uses the word I did and he handles the scene with his superb sense of humor and understanding of the way teenage boy brains work. And this unfortunate occurrence (which is captured by cameramen in a news helicopter) is not gratuitous or for the sake of humor only. It is actually essential to the plot in so many ways and is so well written that I'm going to share it with you here. After catching her in his arms, the stunned, disheveled woman nuzzles her face in Bright Boy's neck and he gets a glimpse of her pink lace bra, thinking

The activity below my belt starts before I can even think to stop it. I realize what's going on and start thinking about baseball, about sharks, about world geography . . . anything.
     "That was amazing," she whispers, her lips pressed up against my ear. "You're amazing."
And there it is. Game, set, match. I'm standing at full attention. Puberty, one; self-control, zero.
     All right . . . I can still get out of this with little or no damage. All I have to do is put her down and get the heck out of here. I start to lower her, but then she starts running her fingers through the back of my hair . . .
     Oh God . . . What do I do now? Maybe she's really into me. But maybe she isn't? Maybe she's just being nice. Or what if she's in shock and has no idea where she is or what she's doing? But then what if she accidentally brushes against "it," and "it" totally like wakes her up? And she suddenly realizes she's gone from being thrown off a roof by a juiced-up freak to being held several stories off the ground by a teen-aged pervert wearing bright yellow tights? Oh God . . . Phantom Justice never trained me for this.

A few more indirect jokes about Bright Boy's erection are made in the second chapter of the book (pitching a bright yellow tent, a banana in your tights, etc) and this media attention focused on him only serves to intensify the sense of alienation and loneliness that Bright Boy's alter-ego, Scott Hutchinson, feels when he is at school. At home, he has Louis, an ex-con, ex-mixed martial arts fighter that Phantom Justice (aka Trent Clancy) took in a few years before he adopted Scott. Louis trains Scott, both mentally and physically for his role as a super hero sidekick, and also acts as a parental figure to him. But once Scott leaves the house for Harbinger Prep school, no one is on his side until he's called upon to transform into Bright Boy. On top of that, a gang of bullies has long targeted Scott. Not only does Scott have to pretend to be intimidated by them, he has to control his plus/plus super abilities (strength and speed/reflexes) to keep from pummeling them. Adding to his isolation is the fact that, despite the media attention and repeated pleas, Phantom Justice/Trent refuses to update the costume Scott has been wearing since he was six. When longtime nemesis Dr Chaotic (the only known living super with intelligence as his plus) and his sidekick, Monkeywrench (plus/plus speed and strength) escape from prison and add to Scott's misery, things seem hopeless. In the midst of a tense moment (Dr Chaotic and Phantom Justice are engaged in a "big cliché contest and they're both determined to win") Bright Boy loses his cool and lunges at Monkeywrench, who has been mocking him relentlessly. The fight escalates, spills out of the warehouse (typical setting for super and villain confrontations) and across neighboring rooftops. When the two sidekicks crash through a roof, their masks unintentionally come off and Bright Boy learns that, not only is his nemesis one of his classmates at Harbinger, but that Monkeywrench is a SHE and not a he.

The story takes off from there and Scott finds himself unable to get Allison Mendes, daughter of Dr Chaotic (Dr Edward Simmons) out of his mind. The two strike up a wary friendship with Allison always seeming to have the upper hand, mostly because Scott is so shy, introverted and sheltered. There is a very funny scene where she treats him to a gyro, something he's never had. While he marvels at its deliciousness and shovels the whole thing in his mouth, Allison wonders that Scott has lived in New York City his whole life and never experienced or explored anything more than the rooftops that he often finds himself on as Bright Boy. It is Allison who takes Scott to Jimmy's Army/Navy Surplus store and helps (and buys with her father's credit card) him assemble a new Bright Boy outfit, which he leaves the store wearing. Allison slips into a nearby alley and puts on her sidekick costume, an even newer one that reveals that Monkeywrench is in fact a girl, and the two take off across the city, fighting, running and jumping from rooftop to rooftop having the time of their lives. Their chase ends with a mid-ari catch and a bear hug on top of a cargo truck that turns from tickles into a kiss. A kiss that is caught by at least ten people on their phones and transmitted around the country, making them instantly famous and fabulous.

Just when I thought that Sidekicks was leaning toward being an allegorical story of young people learning about themselves, each other and breaking away from the bonds of family and home to forge an independent life, Ferraiolo cranks up the action and turns this story into a thriller that is hard to put down and even had me shouting "No!" at a few points. As the review of at Publisher's Weekly notes, "What starts as a tongue-in-cheek sendup of the superhero genre rapidly swerves into new and engaging territory as Ferraiolo reveals the story's true depths." Without giving too much away, it seems that Phantom Justice and Dr Chaotic have been colluding for years, mostly in the interest of making money from the corporations that hire them to draw attention to their business ventures by having them openly fight in front of their logos or pretend to protect, steal and fight over company properties like the secret plans for a car that could get eighty miles per gallon without using hybrid technology. Not only have the two been rigging all their fights and others, but Phantom Justice might just be responsible for the dwindling numbers of plus/plus superheroes. All of this, combined with their growing popularity among the younger demographics makes the continued existence of Bright Boy and Monkeywrench tenuous. And that's not even half the story. Scott and Allison's budding relationship, her insistence that her father is not a villain and her growing desire to help people who are truly in trouble the way Scott does become entwined with fantastic murder plots, crazy special technology and weaponry and a secret government organization that has a mole at Harbinger. 

The action, adventure and intimate look into the lives of superheroes that Ferraiolo writes about in Sidekicks are fascinating. But, like any truly great book, what makes it fantastic are the characters. Scott Hutchins is an immediately real-feeling character and his growth over the course of the book is a joy to watch. Allison Mendes is fun right from the start, with her confidence, her humor and her growing fondness for Scott. As he proved in The Big Splash, Ferraiolo has a way with crafting a memorable character. I know that Scott and Allison will be rumbling around in my head for a long time and, while his next book, The Quick Fix, sequel to The Big Splash, is due out this fall, I really, REALLY hope we see more of Bright Boy and Monkeywrench in the future. In fact, Sidekicks is such a visually detailed, character driven book that I imagined the movie version as I read. This is one book that I would LOVE to see made into a movie, adding a level of depth and intelligence to the usual tween fare out there now. For a very cool behind the scenes look at the making of the cover of Sidekicks, check out Mishaps and Adventures, a blog by Chad W Beckerman, art director and cover designer at Abrams/Amulet.

Source: Review Copy and Audio Book (from the library)


It's a Tiger! by David La Rochelle, illustrated by Jeremy Tankard

It's a Tiger! is the new book from the fantastic David LaRochelle. I am remiss that this is my first full review of one of his books, but I did feature two of his books in my Best Picture Books of 2008 post. Happily, It's a Tiger! is a fantastic book and an instant story time staple for me at the bookstore and also great place to begin to introduce you to the books of David LaRochelle. Jeremy Tankard's illustrations are perfectly matched to LaRochelle's story and will have little listeners following closely.

It's a Tiger! begins, "Are you ready for a story? Me too. We'll start in the jungle where the tall trees grow and the monkeys swing from vine to vine. Wait a minute. That's not a monkey. That looks like..."

"A TIGER! Run!" Bulging eyes (for the monkeys and the main characters), a vivid red background and the need for speed burst from the two page spread. A quick visit back to the first page of the story reveals a stripy tail amongst the monkeys and vines that sharp eyes will have noticed. Even if they don't, by the next spread they will figure out what's going on. Tankard's illustrations are bright, simple and a little bit primitive, which adds to the excitement. La Rochelle's narrative has a "Going on a Bear Hunt" feel to it, which keeps listeners on the edge of their seats, but the text is smoother and doesn't have the sing-songy promise of a rhyme that never comes like "Bear Hunt" does. 

This formula is repeated over and over as the main character (I'm pretty sure it's a boy, but I think you could convince listeners it's a girl if you really wanted to, which I do sometimes) continues to try to run away from the tiger. Through a cave, a snake pit, a bed of flowers and onto a boat.  Finally, a treasure chest on a desert island is not filled with jewels and gold but a roaring tiger. Or is the tiger roaring? Maybe he was only yawning. Maybe he needs a story to help him sleep. Like all the best books, It's a Tiger! circles around to where it began while also shaking things up. In an effort to lull the tiger to sleep, the narrator says, "We'll start in the jungle where the tall trees grow and the monkeys swing from vine to vine. Wait a minute. That's not a monkey. That looks like..."

 It's a Tiger! is a deceptively simple book, the kind that kids want to hear over and over again and adults never get tired or reading.

More great books from David LaRochelle...


The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, written by Jaqueline Kelly, 338 pp, RL 4

Jaqueline Kelly should feel very accomplished in this life. Besides being a doctor and a lawyer, her debut novel won the Newbery Honor Medal in 2010, and I suspect The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate would have won the gold had the equally amazing and wonderful book When You Reach Me by Rebbeca Stead not come out in the same year. Check out this interesting article that features fourteen questionable Newbery choices over the years.  Either way, I am so glad I did not have to choose a gold medal winner between the two. That said, while I loved every page, passage and sentence of The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, as I read I frequently wondered what type of young reader would pick up this unique work of historical fiction? 

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate begins in the summer of 1899 in Fentress, Texas on the Tate pecan plantation. Eleven year old Calpurnia is a middle child with three older and three younger brothers. As one might expect, growing up on a plantation with nothing but brothers, she is not squeamish or shy when it comes to playing out doors. Also, Calpurnia is a watcher, an observer of the world around her. Calpurnia's curiosity about the natural world, her desire to learn how and why it works and her strong, engaging narrative voice make this book and character one that will have a long shelf life and can easily take a place next to Lucy Maude Montgomery's Anne Shirley. The significant aspect of The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, the one that makes me wonder if young readers will embrace this book the way many adults (myself included) have, indeed, if they will embrace Calpurnia the way generations have Anne, is the distinct lack of action, suspense, drama and climax that can be found in the pages of Anne of Green Gables. While much of the drama of Anne of Green Gables can be attributed to Anne's dramatic nature alone, there are plot developments that move the book along and a sad loss at the end that changes the course of Anne's future. In contrast, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate feels more like a collection of loosely linked vignettes that illuminate a young girl's turning toward the person she will be as an adult. While there is a mentor who guides her towards the discovery of her own passion in the form of her Granddaddy, her father's father Captain Tate, who built the plantation up from the ground, he never intervenes on her behalf during the six months that the story takes place. However, I think that the quiet tone of Kelly's book, the lack of a grand declaration of independence and determination on Calpurnia's part, only adds to the authentic feel of the writing and a more honest depiction of real life for a girl during this time period. Kelly skillfully balances the social standards and expectations for a girl of this era and class with the burgeoning interest in the possibilities that lay before her as the century and the life of all Americans perches on the verge of incredible changes and progress.

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate begins with a very hot summer when all the boys and men cut their hair close and shaved off facial hair to beat the heat. When Calpurnia asks her mother to be allowed the same relief from hair that hangs in a "dense swelter" all the way down her back, Mrs Tate says she will not have her daughter "running around like a shorn savage." Taking matters into her own hands, Calpurnia resolves to cut off an inch every day so that her mother will not notice her hair getting shorter, although she heads to the breakfast table every morning walking in fear. From the start, Calpurnia is, in her own creative way and completely unknowingly, subverting the dominant standards of the time. When the whole house, including all the hired hands, stop work and retire at the peak of the day's heat, Calpurnia sees this unsupervised time as an opportunity to head to the riverbank and float in the shallows. Calpurnia's favorite brother Harry, the oldest, is also her confidant and she shares her observations with him. When he gives her a red leather pocket-sized notebook he suggests she write her observations in it since she is clearly a "naturalist in the making," Calpurnia is thrilled, even though she's not sure what a naturalist is. When she notices two distinctly different kinds of grasshoppers appear that blistering summer and no one in her family can explain their presence to her, she works up her courage and visits her grandfather in his laboratory. Granddaddy, aside from trying to distill whisky from pecans, is a true naturalist with a (locked to the family) library filled with important books and specimens. Granddaddy tells her he is sure she can figure it out on her own and tells her to come back when she does. Noting her observations, Calpurnia briefly fantasizes that she has discovered a new species and become famous and decides she needs to check out The Origin of the Species from the town library, despite the fact that she knows it is a controversial book. She is met with shock and scorn at the library and promptly turned away. Furious and humiliated, Calpurnia returns home and discovers the secret of the grasshoppers on her own. She goes to tell her grandfather her findings, as well as the story of her visit to the library, and he takes her to his library and unlocks a cabinet from which he removes his own copy of The Origin of the Species and loans it to her.

From that moment on, the two spend many hours together, collecting specimens, discussing nature and science and, hopefully, finding a new species of the vetch plant. The trip into town to have the plant photographed before it is sent to the Smithsonian Institution is one of my favorite chapters, each of which start with a quote from The Origin of the Species. The tension in the story comes when school resumes and Mrs Tate decides that it is time for Calpurnia to learn the science of housekeeping. Forced to knit socks for her brothers as Christmas gifts, Calpurnia spends less and less time with grandfather as she struggles with tasks that she is not talented or interested in. She finds herself dividing her time between  unpleasant (to her) domestic tasks and the much more engaging pursuit of her own scientific interests. Aware of her mother's intention and a growing understanding of what awaits her in the future as she watches seventeen year old Harry court a sweetheart, Calpurnia's struggles with her situation not wanting to go against her mother's wishes but knowing that she is not like other girls. As much as I hoped and hoped for it, Granddaddy does not intervene on her behalf. Forced to make apple pies for the family dinner, a disastrous episode in and of itself, Mrs Tate proudly tells the family that the pies were made by Calpurnia. When her younger brother Jim Bowie asks if he can learn to make pies, Mother responds, "No, J.B., boys don't make pies . . . They have wives who make pies for them." The unfairness of her situation dawning on her, Calpurnia wonders, "was there any way I could have a wife, too?" In one especially moving chapter near the end of the book titled "The Reproductive Imperative," Calpurnia falteringly, nervously asks her grandfather if girls can be scientists too, betraying the isolation of her existence. Grandfather asks her, "Did we not talk about Mrs Curie's element? Mrs Maxwell's screech owl? Miss Anning's pterodactyl? Her ichthyosaur? . . . Mrs Kovalevsky's equations? Miss Bird's travels to the Sandwich Islands?" When Calpurnia answers, "No," grandfather begs her to "Please forgive my ignorance," and proceeds to share more of his knowledge with her. Calpurnia says she soaks up "what he told me like a living sponge. It was galvanizing information." Calpurnia finishes her talk with Granddaddy and, from the porch, watches the last, lone firefly of the season, flashing his "signal in the dark, alone, to nothingness." She realizes that she is not alone, that there are others of her kind out there.

The book ends on the morning of January 1, 1900 and without any events of revelations bigger than the confirmation of a new species of vetch a shift in Calpurnia's perspective and outlook for the future. Waking and feeling that something is desperately wrong, Calpurnia looks out her bedroom window at a blanket of snow covering the ground as far as she can see. She thinks, "The world hadn't ended. It had just begun." Calpurnia heads outside, tentatively traipsing through the snow, observing, as always, the world around her, from the bird tracks in the snow to the young coyote creeping around the edge of the lawn.

Source: Swapped


The Cobble Street Cousins Series by Cynthia Rylant, illustrations by Wendy Anderson Halperin, 55pp RL 1.5

The Cobble Street Cousins is another fantastic emerging reader series by the prolific and amazing Cynthia Rylant. The length and reading level are slightly higher than her Lighthouse Family Series, as is the subject and tone, but if the interest level is high enough readers will make the reach. Rylant's series are the antithesis of the reigning queen of chapter books, Junie B Jones and, while The Cobble Street Cousins may seem a bit too sweet for adult tastes, I have no doubt that there are many parents out there searching for better role models and more out-of-the-ordinary stories that what dominates the shelves today. I also have no doubt that the adventures of the cousins will inspire readers to pursue some creative endeavors of their own after reading.

The titular characters, sisters Rosie and Lily and cousin Tess, are all in the fourth grade and staying with their Aunt Lucy, owner of a flower shop, while their parents tour the world with their ballet troupe for a year. Rosie is "very domestic and loved being at home for any reason at all." Tess sings and wants to be a famous Broadway star and has a record collection that includes opera, blues, jazz and show tunes. She knows "the words to every song she owns." Lily is "very good with ideas and wanted to be a writer when she grew up - a poet - so she listened for ideas in her head all the time." In one book the girls decide to make a miniature of Aunt Lucy's flower shop to surprise her and get a little help and ice cream cones from Aunt Lucy's friend Michael who isn't "interested in the family fortune and simply wants to be a botanist." Wendy Halperin Anderson's illustrations are perfectly matched to Rylant's writing with sweet-faced characters and detail filled artwork that expresses the personalities of the characters wonderfully. For more of Anderson's work, again matched perfectly with the book, check out Mary Ann Hoberman's semi-autobiographical Strawberry Hill. As the series progresses, the cousins start a cookie business, get to be bridesmaids and help plan the wedding reception, learn how to sew, throw a Winter Solstice party and throw a party when their parents return home from their tour.

I would have devoured these books as a child. I loved everything the sisters love and would have identified with each one. I would have loved the creativity and warmth that existed in their home. I would have loved to sit down to tea with my mom (or aunt) every day as the cousins do with Aunt Lucy. I would have loved to wander over to the craft store, stopping to visit a friendly adult who offered to join me AND buy me ice cream afterward as the cousins do with Michael!! And, not having these things in my life as a child, I wanted to read about them. In the absence of any available artwork from the The Cobble Street Cousins books, I have included some of Anderson's other illustrations for you to enjoy.