Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Review - "The Children of the King"

There are some books that positively pulsate with good vibes, even when the subject matter is grim.  It can be because of a particularly optimistic character, small acts of courage and good faith, and it can also be because of the vivacity of the language.  We have all of these things on display in Sonya Hartnett’s The Children of the King.

The Second World War is rearing its ugly head, France has fallen and Britain is on the verge of attack.  Hordes of children are being sent away from the city into the countryside, into the arms of family, friends, or even strangers, for safe keeping.  Two such children, Cecily and Jeremy Lockwood, have the upper class luxury of escaping with their mother to their uncle’s lavish country estate in the north.  At Cecily insistence and Jeremy’s calm approval (“It’s the right thing to do”), the Lockwood’s take in an evacuee named May.  Once safely ensconced in Heron Hall, Cecily does her best to make May her new best friend, while still wanting to maintain a sense of superiority.  Jeremy, at the volatile age of 14, is sore that he has been sent away from London and wants desperately to be useful, though how, he hardly knows.  And Uncle Peregrine, the master of Heron Hall, engages the children in a dreadful story of England’s past, with Kings and Queens and children in peril.  Through the horrors of the war told in hush whispered over folded newspapers and the ceaseless lessons learned from Uncle Peregrine’s story, Cecily, May and Jeremy begin to find their way in a world in turmoil.

Cecily is an interesting character.  While positively effervescent and brimming with good feelings, she’s a bit of an anti-hero.  She’s undoubtedly bossy, snobby and has a temper (though her bursts of anger blow over as quickly as they came).  She wants May to be her friend, but she also wants to lord over her, making sure her generosity is never forgotten.  May, for her part, is reserved, but curious, clever and respectful.  She survives May’s generosity with aplomb, and holds her own grief close to her chest. 

The inclusion of Uncle Peregrine’s story, an anonymous retelling of the story of Richard III and the two princes in the tower, gives the family’s present circumstances more weight.  The emphasis on power, how it festers and corrupts could not hold more relevance for the war at their doorstep.  Ms. Hartnett’s use of language is both whimsical and classical.  “Every castle is haunted,” says Uncle Peregrine.  “Hauntings are as common as cats.”  “His wife snorted like a dubious pig in an apron”.  The Children of the King is littered with such rich and imaginative language.
Despite the heavy subject matter, The Children of the King is a delight to read.  Of Ms. Hartnett’s work, I’ve only read (and absolutely loved) Sadie and Ratz, an early chapter book I recommend to emerging readers all the time.  I have a few more of her works on my shelves, and they are shooting right up the reading list.  With novels like this, it is easy to understand why Ms. Hartnett was the recipient of the 2008 Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award.

The Children of the King by Sonya Hartnett
2014, Candlewick Press
Library copy

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Review - "West of the Moon"

“What would you do?”  This is a powerful question.  It forces the questioned to put themselves in situations outside their comfort zone.  It is a very useful question, however, particularly with young readers.  It can inspire and nurture empathy, a wholly valuable commodity.   In Margi Preus’ new novel, West of the Moon, readers might find they are asking themselves, “What would I do?” quite often in the course of events, and the answers will not be easy ones.  But they are worth the asking.

“I am worth two silver coins and a haunch of goat.”  When we join Astri’s story, she is being “hired” out to a loathsome goatherd named Svaalberd by her duplicitous aunt.  Astri works for the goatherd day and night under terrible conditions, and under his constant threat that they will marry one day.  Chief among Svaalberd’s more despicable actions is his keeping locked up a simple, mute girl who spins beautiful yarn for him.  When Astri has a chance to escape, with the goatherd’s “treasure” (which, given that she is certain the goatherd stole the treasure from trolls himself, is not exactly stealing), she grabs the Spinning Girl and they make for Astri’s home, to retrieve her little sister Greta.  Astri means to flee to the fjord, where a ship is bound for America, where the sisters can reunite with their father.  But death and dark clouds follow the girls, and Astri finds herself making choices she never thought she would.

This is not a book for the faint of heart.  It is not a large book, but it is weighty.  This is not to say that it is laborious, however.  It is a task happily done, because Ms. Preus writes with a clarity and conviction that would leave no reader behind.  Astri’s story is difficult, and the choices has to make (and the consequences thereof) are dire.  But the fairy tale elements that are woven throughout the tale, in Astri’s storytelling and the structure, remind the reader there is still hope, even when facing Death himself.  Extensive back matter reveals the inspiration for this story, and gives more information about the folk and fairy tales utilized by the plot.  

Ms. Preus has given us a magical piece of historical fiction, and it is the kind of book that will be treasured by generations.

West of the Moon by Margi Preus
2014, Amulet Books
Library copy

Friday, April 25, 2014

Review - "Ava and Pip"

In comedy, the “straight man” doesn’t get enough credit.  The level-headed, unexcitable yin to the clownish, bumbling yang.  The Marge Simpson.  The Bing Crosby.  The Bud Abbott.  Sure the Marx Brothers are hysterical, but come on!  Margaret Dumont had to run all the same scenes, and had to do so without so much as cracking a smile!  It’s tough to be the “straight man”.  Not only do people not understand how hard your job is, but you sometimes go unnoticed altogether.   So as it is in comedy, so as it goes in life.  Steadier, more sensible siblings (hello, Elinor!) are often overlooked or underestimated in contrast to their headstrong, passionate brethren (hello, Marianne!).  This can be true if your sibling is a cut-up, a screw-up or just…different.  This is the case of one Ava Wren, and her sister Pip, in Carol Weston’s appropriately titled, Ava and Pip.

Ava is in fifth grade.  Pip is in seventh.  Ava is cheerful and outgoing.  Pip is not.  Both girls are intelligent, and coming from a word-nerd family, prone to palindromic games (M-O-M, D-A-D, A-V-A, P-I-P).  Ava has friends.  Pip does not.  As our epistolary story begins with Ava and her new diary, we see that though Ava tries to include her sister in games and fun, Pip is in a gloomy funk, and unfortunately for the Wren family, misery loves company.  When a misunderstanding at school prompts Ava to write a mocking short story about the new girl in Pip’s class, the fallout earns Ava a new friend, a new perspective, a new backbone, and most importantly, a new way to help her sister out of the doldrums. 

Ava and Pip walks a very thin tightrope above a sea filled with literary piranhas: bullying, shyness, regret, etc.  But for the most part, Ms. Weston achieves a perfect balance.  Ava and Pip are carefully drawn characters, and their traits, both those they share and those they don’t, are believable.  The whole family dynamic, in fact, is very germane to their situation and authentic.  It’s easy to understand how M-O-M favors Pip, her eldest, her preemie, her “girl with a problem”, when Ava is so reliable and capable of looking out for herself, and it’s just as easy to feel how infinitely frustrating this is, and how unbalanced it makes the family.  This is a wonderful book for teaching empathy.  We get to see difficult situations from multiple sides of the story, and no one is demonized or lionized.  And while Pip’s transformation seems to come a bit too quickly, and a bit too easily, and it’s important to recognize that shifting from a trait as tricky as painful shyness (with perhaps a touch of depression) is a process and requires work, Pip’s progress is encouraging, and “Pip’s Tips” might go a long way towards helping shy readers with their own blooming.

Ava and Pip by Carol Weston
2014, Sourcebooks Jabberwocky
Preview copy provided by publisher for review

Friday, April 18, 2014

Review - "The Meaning of Maggie"

Being a child can be distressing.  I think many adults forget just how unsettling being young can really be.  You may be the smartest kid on the block, but there are things you won’t know, things that adults won’t tell you, and hard truths you will have to earn.  The smallest of things can topple even the most carefully built house of cards, and when you’re a kid, you’re living in a world of cards.  Swipe.  Moving house/town/country.  Start over.  Swipe.  You finally learn where babies come from.  Start over.  Swipe.  You lose someone, a pet, friend of family member, and suddenly have to navigate the world without them.  Start over.  It’s a shaky world kids live in, one over which they have almost no control.  It’s no wonder that the world of juvenile literature is full to the brim with stories of unsettlement.  It’s one thing to which every child in the universe can relate.  Megan Jean Sovern’s debut middle grade novel, The Meaning of Maggie, tackles issues of a serious nature, but from the (generally) light-hearted point of view of our heroine, Maggie: super-student, bookworm, candy-aficionado and future President of the United States.

Maggie received a journal for her twelfth birthday, and decides to write a memoir of her eleventh year, the year that changed her life (so far).  Eleven was the year her father, now confined to a wheelchair with MS, stopped working, and her mother started.  Eleven was the year she got a B on her science fair project (a B!!!), and the year she ran a mile in gym class.  Eleven was the year of her first crush.  Eleven was the year she finally learned some difficult realities about her father’s illness, her family dynamics and her own limitations.  Eleven was a very big year.

Right off the bat, Maggie is a delightful character.  She’s funny, mentally hyper, a little selfish (sometimes a lot selfish) and surprisingly na├»ve.  For such a smart girl, there’s a lot about growing up that she doesn’t know, or flat out doesn’t want to know (forget about kissing parts of books, she’s not interested).  Maggie is an extraordinary every-girl, and this makes her journey of discoveries all the more relatable and enjoyable.  Behind Maggie is an equally interesting family, including her “no hotness allowed on a school night” sisters and her former hippie parents.  These are people I can see how they fit together, even with all their differences.  Maggie’s father’s illness, about which she knows shockingly little in the beginning, progresses throughout the story, but it never feels like an issue is being forced.

This is a book with a lot of plates in the air, but Ms. Sovern handles everything with the ease of a seasoned professional.  A fantastic work, I’m sure this is one that will stay in my mind towards the end of the year.

The Meaning of Maggie by Megan Jean Sovern
2014, Chronicle Books
Preview copy provided by publisher for review

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Review - "Zane and the Hurricane"

I don’t know if it is coincidence that Zane and the Hurricane is the third middle grade novel about Hurricane Katrina that concerns a boy and his dog, but it is a little strange.  It’s as if the devastation caused by the storm and the aftermath isn’t enough to rile our sympathies, we need man’s best friend thrown in the mix as well.  The presence of these dogs don’t lessen the quality of the books (like Saint Louis Armstrong Beach by Brenda Woods), but I do find the repetition interesting.

Now that I’ve gotten that out of my system, I can talk about Rodman Philbrick’s Zane and the Hurricane with a clear head.  Recipient of three starred reviews, Zane has been one of the highlights of the first quarter of the year, and a title bandied about in Newbery conversations.

Zane wasn’t expecting an experience to change his life when he went down the New Orleans (which he quickly renames, “Smellyville”) to visit with his long-lost great-grandmother Miss Trissy.  But shortly after Zane’s arrival, the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina begins to unfold.  Through a sequence of events involving Zane’s dog, Bandy, Zane ends up separated from Miss Trissy and fighting the rising waters with a musician named Tru and a scrappy girl named Malvina.  This unlikely trio battles the elements of nature and human nature to try and find safety in the midst of a meltdown.

Zane and the Hurricane is a quick read, the words slipping off the pages like running water, leaving the reader scrambling to keep up.  This strategy works in its favor, allowing the reader to experience the story without being stuck in the catastrophe.  We live events as Zane would have lived them, head-on and a little confused.  Philbrick walks a thin line between drama and sensationalism, and for the most part, Zane’s story rings true.  A few of the characters are stereotypical stand-ins, but the duo of Zane and Malvina are fully realized, shining characters (Malvina reminded me quite strongly of Hushpuppy from the 2012 film Beasts of the Southern Wild).

Zane and the Hurricane may not break the Katrina middle grade mold, but it is an excellent addition to the conversation.

Zane and the Hurricane: A Story of Katrina by Rodman Philbrick
2014, The Blue Sky Press
Preview copy provided by publisher for review