Showing posts from March, 2009

Homeless Bird by Gloria Whelan, 212 pp RL 5

With Homeless Bird, Gloria Whelan takes us to India and introduces us to Koly, yet another of her indomitable girl characters who survives against the odds, spirit intact. I seem to never get tired of this kind of story, but for those who might, Whelan's ability to capture the essence of another country, culture and language and weave them into a compelling story seem to be limitless and this book, winner of the 2000 National Book Award for Young People's Literature, is no exception.
When we first meet Koly, she is thirteen, with one older and one younger brother. Living outside a small village where her father works as a scribe, writing letters for the illiterate population, Koly knows that her mother often goes without food so that her children can eat. Thus, it does not surprise her when her father, or Baap, begins to arrange her marriage. The cow is sold, Koly's Maa gives her the solid silver earrings she wore on her wedding day, and a dowry is scraped together. Ko…

Angel on the Square by Gloria Whelan, 288 pp, RL 4

While Angel on the Square ends the story of Ekaterina Ivanova, or Katya, on a note of love and hope, the sad fate of Katya's best friend, the Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolavena, or Stana, and the rest of the Romanov family is like a ghost in the room throughout this entire, well crafted, richly detailed work of historical fiction from the master of that genre for young adults, Gloria Whelan. In 2000 Whelan won the National Book Award for Young People's Literature for Homeless Bird, set in present day India. While the story of Koly and her struggle to make a life for herself after she becomes a teenage widow and thus outcast is fascinating, I found the historical aspects of Angel on the Square to be more compelling.
As a child in the 1980s, I remember being fascinated by a documentary on television about Anna Anderson, the woman who claimed she was Anastasia, Tsar Nicholas' youngest daughter and told a detailed story of how she survived the mass execution of the royal fa…

Magyk (Septimus Heap Series #1) by Angie Sage, illustrations by Mark Zug, 564pp RL 4

LikeCornelia Funke's Inkworld Trilogy, Angie Sage's Septimus Heap Series, the first in which is Magyk, creates a medieval fairy tale world, complete with talking rats, shape-shifters, ExtraOrdinary Wizards and Ordinary Wizards who's eyes turn green when their magyk kicks in, ghosts, boggarts, dragons, the Wendron Witches and a few Egyptian words and symbols here and there. Unlike Cornelia Funke's trilogy, which has more mature themes, the world of the Castle, its surroundings and inhabitants are not nearly as menacing, brutal or dark. There is never a question that the story will end well for the hero and heroine. This is the perfect series for young children who are advanced readers and looking for well written fantasy that is of a more gentle nature but still suspenseful and rich with creative, magical details. Mark Zug's softly beautiful pencil drawings that head up each chapter and bring the characters to life are perfectly suited to Sage's writing.

Horrid Henry by Francesca Simon, pictures by Tony Ross, 90 pp RL 2

I If Junie B Jones was a boy and had been written by Roald Dahl instead of Barbara Park, she would be Horrid Henry. The creation of Francesca Simon, an American who has spent most of her adult life in England, the first Horrid Henry book was published some fifteen years ago and there are currently has sixteen titles in the series, including my favorite (not out in the States yet) Horrid Henry's Nits. Tony Ross, who's illustrations are reminiscent of but less edgy than the work of Quentin Blake, current cover artist for Roald Dahl's works for children, bring Henry and his family and friends to life. Now, for the first time ever, Henry is crossing the pond and maybe he will give Junie B and Jack and Annie from the Magic Tree House series a run for their money. 

These are the kind of books that parents will probably loathe but kids will love. Henry is a horrid child, and his parents can frequently be heard telling him not to be horrid in each of the four stories th…

feathers by Jacqueline Woodson, 118pp, RL 4

Jacqueline Woodson is a prolific and varied author with a Newbery Honor medal, a Caldecott Honor medal, a National Book Award Honor and Coretta Scott King Award and Honors for her books for children. After reading feathers I can seen why she has won so many awards. She has a way of creating a distinct sense of place and time that compliment her memorable characters. Set in the snowy winter of 1971, feathers is narrated by eleven year old Frannie who, although she thinks of herself as an average kind of girl, finds herself dealing with grown-up issues like death, prejudice, violence and the abstract concept of hope.
Emily Dickinson's famous couplet, "Hope is the thing with feathers/that perches in the soul," lends the book its title and provides an overriding theme throughout the events of the book. Like Polly Horvath, Woodson is a miniaturist, weaving tight, well crafted characters and ideas into less than 150 pages. Ms Johnson, Frannie's teacher and Frannie'…

The Spoon in the Bathroom Wall by Tony Johnston, 144pp RL 2

I discovered Tony Johnston's The Spoon in the Bathroom Wall when I was cruising around cover illustrator Brett Helquist's fabulous site and am happy I did. My only complaint is that I wish there was some of Helquist's unique illustrations inside the book to go along with Johnston's animated, humorous writing.
A spoof on the King Arthur legend with a nod to T.H. White and his brilliant version of the tale, The Once and Future King in the dedication, Johnston's book is so much more than the story of a sword in a stone, or, in this case, a spoon in the bathroom wall. The book begins with a Langston Hughes poem:

Hold fast to dreams For if dreams die Life is a broken-winged bird That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams For when dreams go Life is a barren field Frozen with snow.
This is the glue that holds Martha Snapdragon and her father Luther together and keeps them going. Even though Luther can never remember the exact words of the poem, he and Martha tell each other …

Secrets of Greymoor by Clara Gillow Clark, 176pp RL 3

Clara Gillow Clark's third book about Hattie Belle Basket, The Secrets of Greymoor, finds our heroine knee deep in another mystery, one that might save Grandmother from losing her mansion, Greymoor. When we first met her in Hill Hawk Hattie, she is living in a small cabin in the mountains with her father and her mother has just died. When Pa tells Hattie she is going to dress as a boy and help him with his logging work, she is too despondent to argue. That's how she finds herself passing as "Harley," the only girl ever to raft down the Delaware River in 1883, even if it is in secret. In her next book, Hattie on Her Way, Hattie finds herself up against snobby neighbors and rumors about the death of her mysteriously absent Grandfather. In Secrets of Greymoor, Hattie now knows that her Grandfather, who has just passed away, was in the Utica Insane Asylum for the last years of his life, but she does not know what he did with Grandmother's fortune...
As Grandmot…

Hattie on Her Way by Clara Gillow Clark, 208 pp RL 3

With Hattie on her Way, Clara Gillow Clark continues the story of the independent, sometimes prickly Hattie Belle Basket that she began in Hill Hawk Hattie. Although the challenge of passing as a boy and helping her father raft logs down the Delaware River is behind her, life in a mansion on the hill in Kingston, NY with her Grandmother Hortensia and her faithful housekeeper Rose is far from easy.

Above all else, Hattie struggles the grief she still feels for the loss of her mother, Lily, as well as homesickness for her Pa and their cabin in the woods now that they have a new found respect and understanding of each other. Hattie's Grandmother treats Hattie with kindness, but with a quiet distance as well. Rose, or Buzzard Rose, as Hattie dubs her due to her red face and wattle-like neck, treats Hattie like an interloper and calls her a "breaker." Hattie assumes Rose thinks she will be careless and break the valuables in the house, of which there are mysteriously few, …

Hill Hawk Hattie, by Clara Gillow Clark, 159 pp, RL3

Hill Hawk Hattie by Clara Gillow Clark is a superbly crafted gem of a book that fell through the cracks of the shelves of the bookstore where I work. I was fortunate to receive a review copy from Candlewick Press of the newest book about Hattie, Secrets of Greymoor, and didn't realize there were two other books about her until I began doing research before writing my review. Happily, I went back and read the first two books about Hattie and her remarkable life.

Set in 1883 in the hills near Pepacton, New York, on the east branch of the Delaware River, Hill Hawk Hattie is the story of eleven year old Hattie Belle Basket and her Pa, Amos. When the story begins, Hattie and her father are still mourning the death of her mother, Lily a few months earlier. Hattie's Ma had been a society girl raised in the city of Kingston, PA, but there are hints at a troubled past as well. It was there that she met Amos Basket, clean-shaven and well dressed after rafting logs down river. The …