Unwind by Neal Shusterman, 352 pp, RL: TEEN

Unwind is the first book in the Unwind Dystology by Neal ShustermanUnwind was published in 2007, fourteen years after the thought provoking, conversation starting Newbery winner, The Giver and one year before the book that made "dystopian" a household word, The Hunger Games. I was a bookseller when The Hunger Games was published and my fellow booksellers and I avidly passed around the advance reader copy we got then struggled to explain the book - and convey how amazing it was despite the disturbing plot - to customers once it was released. In terms of thought provoking and disturbing plots, Unwind has The Giver and The Hunger Games beat. Once the three main characters of the book are on the run together, Unwind unfolds at a fast pace with Shusterman revealing more and more horrifically logical elements of the dystopian world he has masterfully created.

In The Giver, a purportedly utopian community relinquishes literature, music, art and the ability to see color while also committing infanticide and euthanizing the elderly to maintain order. In The Hunger Games, the government stages an annual, televised event where twenty-four boys and girls fight to the death - both for entertainment and as a reminder to the citizens of Panem to tow the line. Unwind is set sometime in a future where iPods are considered antiques and transplants (anything from eyes to arms to lobes of the brain) have become the standard medical response to all illness. Far from a utopia, this is a society living with compromises brought about by The Second Civil War, also known as the Heartland War, fought by the Life Army and the Choice Brigade. Ending this war has brought about changes in the laws of United States and hideous compromises that citizens seem to be accepting of. Abortion has been outlawed, but "retroactive abortion" becomes the legal. In a country where all pregnancies are carried to term, unwanted newborns become wards of the state or they can be "storked," which entails a new parent leaving his/her infant on the doorstep of a house, ringing the doorbell and fleeing. If the abandoning parent does not get caught, the baby becomes the "storked" family's responsibility. As a response, "retroactive abortion" has been instituted. "Retroactive abortion" allows parents to opt out of parenthood by having a child with discipline or health issues between the ages of 13 - 18, "unwound," a practice which feeds and fuels the transplant industry, making their "unwinding" a seemingly worthwhile act.  

The most amazing and compelling aspect of Unwind is the evenhanded way that Shusterman writes his world - rather than pick sides, he presents all sides. And all sides (there are more than two...) seem to be equally heinous in their actions and there are many, many blind eyes turned. As in The Giver, language allows people to feel more comfortable about what they are doing and condoning. Unwinds do not die, but live on in a "divided state." In fact, the process of being unwound is treated with such secrecy that many of the children actually believe that they will not die during the process. Shusterman even includes a chilling chapter in which a character is unwound, the reader experiencing every moment of the process, including the babble of the nurses and doctors, from the unwind's perspective. However, there are also, possibly apocryphal stories, of the psychological toll the decision to unwind can have on parents in the form of the story of "Humphrey Dunfee." Supposedly, after deciding to have their son unwound many years ago, the  Dunfees went mad with grief and regret, traveling the world to find the recipients of transplants from their son so, like Humpty Dumpty, they could put him back together again...

The three main characters, Connor, Risa and Lev, are each being unwound for different reasons. Sixteen-year-old Connor has impulse control issues and stumbles across his unwind papers along with plane tickets for the family vacation - one that he realizes he will not be going on. Risa, also sixteen and raised in a State Home, is being unwound because of funding cuts, chosen for the procedure because her classical piano playing skills were not as good enough. Along the way, they meet other runaway Unwinds and learn the sad and sometimes frivolous or avaricious reasons for  the decision to retroactively abort. The most interesting character in the book and the one who undergoes the most profound changes, is Lev. In this new world, ultra-religious families who tithe 10% of their income to the church also believe in tithing 10% of all their worldly possessions, including children. Blond haired, blue eyed Lev is a tithe, the 10th child, and has been raised to believe that as a tithe his life has special purpose and meaning and to be proud of this designation, which requires him to wear white. On his thirteenth birthday, a "tithing party," much like a Bar Mitzvah, sends him off to a special camp where tithes continue their religious studies before being unwound, many of them believing that they pass on the ability to perform miracles in the parts of them used for transplants. 

Over the course of the novel, as they run from their fates, Connor, Risa Lev and come together and fall apart in spectacular events that continually reveal the incredible and insidious ways in which society adapts to, benefits from and declines from the new laws. Shusterman's ideas are sometimes stronger than his writing, nevertheless, Unwind is a book that will linger long in my thoughts, much like The Giver has.

If you don't mind a tiny spoiler, scroll to the bottom for information on a novella Shusterman publised in eBook form only that expands on Lev's story in Unwind.

Other books in the Unwind Dystology:

Book 4: UnDivided, due out October 2014

UnStrung - an eBook novella

One incredible aspect of Unwind that I couldn't fit into my review are the "clappers," young terrorists who fill their bloodstreams with undetectable explosives and detonate themselves at key moments in key places. Toward the end of Unwind, Lev falls in with a terrorist group. UnStrung is about his time there.

Source: Purchased Audio Book


Dog Days of School by Kelly di Pucchio, illustrated by Brian Biggs

Dog Days of School is a very funny flip-flop-school-story written by Kelly DiPucchio and  illustrated by Brian Biggs. Charlie does not like going to school and is tired of everything about it. In fact, Charlie is "tired of being tired." Norman, Charlie's dog, seems like he has it all - a soft bed to sleep on and nothing to do. As he falls asleep in Sunday night, Charlie wishes he was a dog. When he wakes up the next morning, his wish has come true - Charlie is in Norman's dog bed and Norman is in Charlie's bed, being shaken awake by his mom!

Norman follows the human routine pretty well while Charlie kicks it in the dog bed, a big smile on his face. Despite a few odd looks at first, Norman fits in at school and gets the job done. At home, Charlie finds he can stare out the window watching leaves fall for hours on end and is not above a "long, cold drink . . . from the toilet."

Of course, all good things come to an end. Charlie's behavior gets him a very long time-out in the laundry room and he decides it's time to end the switcheroo. Unfortunately, all he can do is bark.

Happily, a wish made under the light of the stars does the trick and Charlie wakes up a boy again, very happy to be headed off to school. And Norman? As the final page shows us, he took a "very, very long nap."

Source: Review Copy


Chu's First Day of School by Neil Gaiman & Adam Rex

Earlier this year in a Literary Celebrity Guest Review, Elissa Brent Weissman reviewed the charming Chu's Day, written by Neil Gaiman and brilliantly illustrated by  Adam Rex. Now, just in time for fall, Chu is back and headed to school in Chu's First Day of School!

Chu is nervous. School is starting and he worries whether the other students will like him and what will happen. His mother and father reassure him, but he is still apprehensive. The teacher has a friendly face and she wants to get to know the class by having each student said his or her name and tell the class "one thing that you love to do."

If you have read Chu's Day, then you know, as the first lines of Chu's First Day of School inform us, there is a "thing that Chu could do." As with all the illustrations in this book and in Chu's Day, Rex adds a layer of depth to the story with his richly textured, detailed illustrations that really make the both books. The first page of Chu's First Day of School shows Chu leaving the scene of his latest sneeze-induced disaster, the flowery field across the street from the school. 

The anticipation and suspense for the sneeze that we all know is coming builds as each new student shares in front of the class, shy Chu hanging back. When the inevitable finally happens, Chu's relief is palpable and the laughs that are sure to follow are priceless, whether they relieve first-day-fears or not.

Source: Review Copy


Monsters Love School by Mike Austin

Last year I reviewed Mike Austin's Monsters Love Colors. Austin took a pretty standard concept book and turned it into an energy-filled-outing with some scribbly-but-sweet monsters who are very fun to spend time with. In Monsters Love School, Austin and his monsters work their magic again, this time taking a pretty standard starting school story and making it special.

Monsters Love School begins with something adults and kids know to be true - summer is awesome. But, what all adults and older kids know, summer always comes to an end. 

However, as the title tells us, Monsters Love School! Well, all monsters except one - Blue, who already knows his "ABGs and 413s and XYDs!" and wonders just what school is for?

With Miss Wiggles the crossing guard, Principal Blinkin, a cyclops, and Miss Scribble, the art teacher, Blue learns that Monster School is really cool! And he gets the what-for from all his friends who fill him in on all the great things about school.

Austin's monsters are expressive and cheerful and his illustrations portray the low-grade chaos that sometimes comes with preschool and/or kindergarden in a fantastic, colorful collage style that works perfectly for this kind of story. And, while I love the two-page spread that introduces Chef Octi and the cafeteria, Mr. Reed, the school librarian, and his Explorer Book Club is my favorite! The end of the day comes too soon but with the happy, explosive exclamation, "I LOVE MONSTER SCHOOL!" that sums up the energy and exuberance that Austin brings to this fantastic back to school book!

Source: Review Copy


The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, Book 1: The Mysterious Howling, by Maryrose Wood, illustrated by Jon Klassen, 267 pp, RL 4

I have had a copy of The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, Book 1: The Mysterious Howling by Maryrose Wood on my shelf since 2010 when it was released. While the plot sounded interesting, I have hung on to it for over four years, hoping to get to it someday, because of the completely charming  illustrations by a favorite of mine, Jon Klassen. Now, four years later and four books into the series (Klassen illustrated books 1 - 3 and the cover of book 4 with Eliza Wheeler taking over interior illustrations) I have finally read/listened to The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, Book 1: The Mysterious Howling The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, Book 1: The Mysterious Howling, which is narrated beautifully by the brilliant Katherine Kellgren, an added incentive and bonus. Kellgren does a fantastic job on the many exclamations of "Ahwoooooooooooooo!" that come throughout the book, but I'm getting ahead of myself!

The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, Book 1: The Mysterious Howling, which has been compared to Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre and Lemony Snicket's Series of Unfortunate Events also owes a nod to Joan Aiken's classic, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. Wood sets her series of books squarely in the time period of Jane Eyre, with fifteen year old orphan and graduate of a girl's school who applies for the position of governess at the grand manor, Ashton Place. The omniscient narrator is clearly of our time, occasionally inserting anachronistic commentary about roller coasters, cardiovascular fitness, lottery winners and the future writing of The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells while humorously illustrating a point, calls to mind the narrator of the Series of Unfortunate Events. The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, Book 1: The Mysterious Howling is rich with parodic humor throughout, which, as with Snicket's books, will probably be lost on most readers but should not lessen the enjoyment.

The orphan, Miss Penelope Lumley who knows that her family must be out there somewhere, has made the most of her time at the Swanburne Academy for Poor Bright Females and goes on to  make the most of her time at Ashton Place where she finds her three charges living in a barn, only recently having been captured in the nearby forest where they were seemingly raised by wolves. With Lord Frederick spending much of his time hunting and mysteriously disappearing once a month and the young, frivolous newlywed Lady Constance in charge, Penelope faces challenges far beyond taming the feral children. Wood layers the story of Penelope's arrival at Ashton Place and the challenges she faces in civilizing and educating the children (and also protecting them from the unsavory, exploitative attitude of the Lord and Lady's social circle) with deeper mysteries like the monthly disappearance of Lord Frederick, the curious wallpaper behind the peeling wallpaper on the landing of the deserted fourth floor and the howling noise that emanates from the wall and the intriguing fact that Penelope and her youngest ward have the same shade of auburn locks.

The Incorrigibles themselves add another layer of hilarity and poignancy to the confectionary delight that is The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, Book 1: The Mysterious Howling. Named Alexander, Beowulf and Cassiopeia by Lord Frederick (and referred to only as the Incorrigibles by Lady Constance), their socialization and education by Penelope, whom they call Lumawoo (they learn to speak haltingly and add "awoo" and "woof" to the end of most words, which adds to the fun) makes for more excitement and suspense, since she is never too sure when their wolfish upbringing will prevail, as when a squirrel gets into the ballroom during Lady Constance's grand Christmas soirée. It seems as though someone is trying to sabotage the children's introduction to society with the squirrel, who sets off a wild tear through the house that leaves a trail of destruction. When Penelope finally finds the three, she fears the worst. Instead, she discovers the squirrel cradled in Casseopeia's (who calls herself Cassawoof) lap, newly named Nutsawoo. There are other tense but wryly funny scenes like the children's "tragic encounter with taxidermy" in Lord Frederick's study and the misguided gift of toy guns for the boys who only months before had been cowering in the forest with the muzzle of Lord Frederick's hunting rifle inches from their faces. 

The more tongue-in-cheek (and occasionally touching) moments that fill the pages of The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, Book 1: The Mysterious Howling come when Penelope is reflecting upon her guilty pleasure, the Giddy-Yap, Rainbow! series of books featuring Edith-Anne, her horse Rainbow and Silky, the "untamed, unfriendly beast" who is coaxed to calm and saved from the slaughterhouse by the loving attention of the girl and her horse. Penelope calms the children (and sends Mrs. Clarke to tears) with her tale of Silky, and also recites Longfellow's The Wreck of the Hesperus to them for entertainment. Besides academics, in which Penelope is naturally well trained, much of the Incorrigible's initial education is more like animal training, which Penelope learned at the side of Dr. Westminster, the country veterinarian who lives in a gingerbread-style chicken  coop on the grounds of the Swanburne Academy where he teaches the chickens to dance...

Wood seems to be having so much fun with her characters that it takes her four books to finally start getting down to the mysterious connection between Penelope, the Incorrigibles and Lord Frederick, but you don't even realize that because there is so much else going on in each book and the setting and characters are so enjoyable that spending time with them in any capacity is a treat! In Book 2, The Hidden Gallery, Penelope and the Incorrigibles find themselves transplanted to London while the Manor is being repaired, a strange guidebook and possible pirates keeping the governess and her charges busy. In Book 3, The Unseen Guest, an ostrich is found running through the forest on the grounds of Ashton Place, we meet the Dowager Lady Ashton, a pack of very intelligent wolves is encountered and a séance is held in the hopes of contacting the Dowager's first husband who was lost in medicinal tar pits. Book 4, The Interrupted Tale, is mostly devoted to Penelope's return to Swanburne Academy for Poor Bright Females where the curious Judge Quinzy has taken over and changed the name to Quinzy's School for Miserable Girls while in search of a hidden diary that might reveal why the Ashton men have been howling at the full moon for generations...

Surprisingly, this book trailer captures the tone and playfulness of the series wonderfully and is worth a few moments of your time:

The rest of the series!

More great art from the series!

Eliza Wheeler's illustrations for Book 4, The Interrupted Tale

Source: Purchased Audio Book and Review Copy


If I Had a Raptor by George O'Connor

There are a lot of great things about If I Had a Raptor by George O'Connor, creator of the Olympians series of graphic novels, but what I like most is the way that O'Connor subtly replaces the expected with the uncommon. A raptor stands in for a cat and, in this time when the conversation about the abundance of white boys in children's literature is starting to take precedence, a little girl of color takes the place of what would undoubtedly,  even a few years ago, especially in a book about dinosaurs, been a white boy. Bravo to O'Connor for subverting the dominant paradigm. But, above all else, congratulations on writing a n entertaining and funny picture book about the ups and downs of having a pet!

The story begins visually a few pages before the words when a little girl comes across a box on the street labeled, "Free Raptors." Inside are very fluffy, cute and colorful creatures with big, pleading eyes. Our young narrator begins the story by telling us that, is she had a raptor, she'd want to "get her as a baby when she's all teensy and tiny and funny and fluffy," and easy to lose. Our narrator would give that little raptor a collar with a bell on it so she could always find her! Kids know that nothing stays cute and tiny and fluffy for long and will be cracking up in anticipation of what's to come.

If I Had a Raptor gets increasingly funny as the raptor grows to the size of a small horse and begins to exhibit cat behavior like sitting on top of what you are trying to read, annoying nocturnal behavior, kneading and fussy taste in food.

O'Connor includes some fantastic scenes where the  raptor is caught mid-scratch, tearing up a piece of furniture and getting a claw-trim with a giant pair of cable cutters. My absolute favorite illustration is of Dinah frozen in a window as she sees birds on a tree branch outside. I can just hear the strange little clicking sound that my cats make at this moment coming of out the raptor's mouth. O'Connor ends If I Had a Raptor with some harmless stalking behavior - well, harmless when done by a house cat. Our narrator is sitting on the floor, playing with her toy dinos when it looks like she is about to be pounced on - but that handy little bell alerts her to Dinah's presence and she gets a big hug around the neck!

O'Connor is an established author of the Olympians series of graphic novels about the Greek gods and goddesses, and the illustrator of the superb new bridge chapter book series, Captain Awesome!. To this esteemed list, he can now add picture book author and illustrator!

Source: Review Copy

Gigantosaurus by Jonny Duddle

While he definitely has a way with pirates, Jonny Duddle is such an amazing illustrator that I am always excited to see where he turns his focus when working on a new project (be sure to scroll to the bottom of the review to see Duddle's latest project - creating new 15th anniversary cover for UK editions of the Harry Potter books!) As his newest book Gigantosaurus proves, Jonny Duddle has a way with dinosaurs and the Cretaceous period as well!

Gigantosaurus is a re-imagining of Aesop's fable, The Boy Who Cried Wolf. In this case, it's the baby ankylosaurus, Bonehead who cries gigantosaurus. Duddle uses the final pages of Gigantosaurus to identify the dinosaurs in the book and tell readers that his gigantosaurus is actually a "scary dinosaur made up for this book." He goes on to note that there was an actual dinosaur a lot like it, the "Giganotosaurus," which was bigger than the T-Rex.

Gigantosaurus begins with four little dinosaurs, Bonehead, Tiny, Fin and Bill wanting to play out of sight of their moms. The moms warn them to beware of the fierce and wild gigantosaurus, cautioning, "With teeth as long as you are tall, he'd soon make a snack of one so small. His feet go STOMP! His jaws go CRUNCH! In the blink of an eye, you'd be his LUNCH!"

Bonehead convinces his friends that he should be the lookout and he perches himself atop a termite nest. At the slightest inclination (which, admittedly, are BOOMS, THUDS and THUMPS that would scare me) Bonehead yells, "It's the GIGANTOSAURUS!" and his friends go scurrying. When they finally get fed up with Bonehead and leave him alone, the Gigantosaurus show up with a gatefold spread that really gives you an idea of the size of this beast. Happily, Bonehead survives to lookout another day! And he does - the final page of the story shows a pteranodon flying in on the horizon . . .

Jonny Duddle's other picture books:

The Pirate Cruncher       The Pirates Next Door

Jonny Duddle was also chosen to update the covers of the Harry Potter Series of books for Bloomsbury, the British publisher of the series.

Kazu Kibuishi's updated covers for Scholastic, the US publisher!

When you buy the boxed set, you get this additional awesome illustration of Hogsmeade! 

And this image of Hogwarts when all the books are spined together!

And the back covers of the new editions...

Source: Review Copy