Monday, May 30, 2011

Review - "Junonia"

When you are young, birthdays are near magical occurrences (they’re still magical as you get older, but what kind of magic is hard to say).  Birthdays make you older, bring you closer to a goal.  They bring you presents and family and friends.  And cake.  We can’t forget the cake.  Our lives are marked by birthdays, and it often seems that life changing events seem to follow in course.  In Kevin Henkes’, Junonia, we have a coming of age tale that culminates in an eventful birthday party, told with Henkes’ dependable eloquent style and touch of grace.

It is the week of Alice Rice’s tenth birthday, and she and her parents are off on their yearly Floridian vacation.  This was supposed to be her perfect year, the year she turned ten.  It was the year she would finally find a junonia shell, a rare and beautiful shell she needs to add to her impressive collection.  But right from the start, things don’t go the way Alice planned.  Her usual set of vacation friends have failed to show, leaving her disappointed and a bit lonely.  She searches often, but finds no trace of a junonia, outside of the ones for sale at the local shell shop.  And worst of all, her Aunt Kate (her mother’s good friend) is coming, but not alone.  She brings with her a boyfriend and his daughter, six year old Mallory.  Alice tries to be friendly with Mallory, and at times it works, but Mallory is a girl with problems and expectations of her own, and they do not always go along with what Alice has planned.

Alice is a very introspective girl, and Junonia is a very thoughtful novel.  Perhaps it is a bit too thoughtful, too articulate for a girl of only ten, but it reads beautifully, and one can easily allow Henkes his poetic license.   Even with its expressive excess, Junonia does very well at getting to the heart of Alice and understanding her joys and her disappointments.  Her parents are a source of warmth and sympathy, a sterling example of novel parents.  The relationship between Alice and Mallory is a complicated one, as any relationship between a newly minted ten year old and a six year old.  The blowout at Alice’s birthday party is handled very well and feels very realistic.   One final scene involving the junonia shell is particularly heartbreaking in Alice’s understanding of the situation.  Birthdays are magical, and they do make us older, but with growing up comes growing pains, and with Junonia Henkes gives us a sweet, touching tale of growing pains that is sure to intrigue readers, especially those quieter ones who look calmly through the stacks until they’ve found that perfect book, just for them.

Junonia by Kevin Henkes
2011, HarperCollins Children’s Books
Copy provided by publisher

Monday, May 23, 2011

Review - "Bitter Melon"

I’m not sure what it is that appeals to me in YA literature these days.  When I actually was a young adult, I wasn’t reading typical YA fare.  There are classics in the genre that I didn’t read until I was an adult, and some notable standouts that I still haven’t read (Judy Blume, I’m looking your way).  When I was a teenager, I just wasn’t interesting in teenage things, and it wasn’t until I started running a youth/children’s department at a bookstore that I really started to look at what was being published and began to get interested.  Since then there have been books that I’ve loved, and books that I wonder how they ever got published.  Fortunately there were far more of the former than the latter.  Now that I’m a children’s librarian, YA literature isn’t a professional responsibility, but I still enjoy keeping up with what’s new.  And one title I picked up off the new books shelf was Bitter Melon by Cara Chow.

Frances Ching, a Chinese-American teenager, has her life mapped out for her: attend UC Berkley, become a doctor and help take care of her mother.  It’s her mom’s plan, and one that timid Frances has never really questioned.  That is, until a mix-up on her senior year schedule puts in her speech class instead of calculus.  Slowly, Frances realizes she has a voice, and beyond even that, she has a choice.  But how can she make choices that break her mother’s heart, after all she’s done for Frances, working long hours and sacrificing much for her daughter’s education?  Frances grows to realize that she’s suffered too, oppressed under her mother’s unrealistic expectations and sometimes cruel and unwarranted punishments.  She must learn the power of her own voice and make the tough choices that will lead her to her own life, not one that has been chosen for her.

Reading Bitten Melon was a little oppressive, and I mean that in the best possible way.  I felt all the pressure placed on Frances by her mother and her culture, and I related to her desire to make her mother happy, even when her mother seems to show no concern for her daughter’s happiness at all.  Chow does a wonderful job with the complicated emotions of Frances, and the even more complicated decisions she must make.  Frances is a likable, relatable character, as is her best friend Theresa.

It’s got to be a hard thing to portray child abuse in such a way that can still leave you feeling sympathy for the abuser.  In one scene, Frances’ mother beats her with the trophy she has earned in a speech contest, and yet still we feel for Mrs. Ching in small amounts, in the way she feels abandoned and betrayed, not only by her daughter but her way of life.  I have to wonder how much, if any, of this story, set in the late 1980s, is based on the author’s real life.  I also wonder about what a good pairing this would make with the controversial Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua.  Bitter Melon is a gripping story, written with a confident hand.  I would definitely recommend it to any teenagers, or older tweens, that wander my way.

Bitter Melon by Cara Chow
2010, Egmont USA
Library copy

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Storytime Visitor

We had a special visitor in storytime today: a centipede (or centipede-like critter; I'll admit I didn't get a very good look at it). The kids were alternatively horrified and fascinated, and of course one very well-informed and willing to share child made sure everyone knew centipedes were poisonous. I was stuck with a bit of a dilemma. Do I interrupt myself and take care of the little pest or wait until my story (Lynne Rickards' Pink!) was finished and then track him down and dispose of him? The little bug wasn't harming anyone, and for the most part, my kids were staying away and trying to pay attention to the story. Eventually, one mother came forward with some tissues and did away with the many legged beast and we were all able to go back to normal programming. It certainly made for an interesting change from the norm, and kept me on my toes during craft time, looking for any little friends that might pop up.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Backlist files - "Lucky Breaks"

I’ll admit to not being much of a fan of Susan Patron’s Newbery winning The Higher Power of Lucky.  It wasn’t that I disliked the book, but simply looked at it after its win and said, “What’s special?  What’s distinguished?”  As a librarian, I see the book sit on the shelf mostly, occasionally checked out by teachers or college students.  For these reasons, I wasn’t in a hurry to pick up the sequel, Lucky Breaks.  But a recent challenge I set myself found me picking it up and giving it a try.

Lucky Trimble, on the verge of turning eleven, is back, still eager to solve the mysteries of life, the universe and everything, with her adopted mother Brigitte(she from France) and her best friend Lincoln (he of the endless knot-tying).  Lucky makes friends with a weekend visitor to Hard Pan, Paloma, and finds herself wondering what it would be like to have a girl best friend.  A risky adventure on the day of her birthday party puts Lucky between a rock and a hard place, and the presents her biggest challenge yet: having faith in her friends.

There’s not really much plot to speak of in Lucky Breaks, but a series of happenings that converge upon the climactic accident.  It rides mostly on the coattails of its characters, depending on their cuteness, their cleverness.  The problem is, Lucky, as a main character, is just a little too cute and too clever.  Her balance teeters between girlish fits of uncontrollable giggles with Paloma and facts that compare her life with her hero, Charles Darwin.  To me, she’s an unreal child, more that adult perception of a precocious, interesting child than a flesh and blood possibility.  There’s little truth to be found in this little book, though it is entertaining to a point.  I think if suffers most from trying to live up to its Newbery wining predecessor.  There’s too much trying to be important, too little trying to make the important pieces fit.  Here’s hoping Patron can pull things together for a respectable finish to this proposed trilogy.

Lucky Breaks by Susan Patron
2009, Ginee Seo Books
Library copy

Monday, May 16, 2011

Review - "Swan Fake"

My love for fairy tales strikes again.  There are reasons these stories exist in our minds the way they do, their themes and structures lingering and leaving their mark on so many things we create.  The “Cinderella” story has been done over so many times, in so many different ways, from so many different angles (I particularly enjoyed Lily Archer’s YA title, The Poison Apples, which focused on the wicked step-mother aspect).  Maya Gold’s Cinderella Cleaners series is another modern take on the tale, in which Diana Donato works after school at her father’s dry cleaning business, at the insistence of her step-mother, Fay.  The sixth installment, Swan Fake, finds Diana agreeing to do a friend an enormous favor: taking her place in the ballet “The Nutcracker” for her opening dance.  Diana hasn’t taken ballet lessons in years, and has her own show to worry about, with her solo in her school’s production of “The Snow Queen”   Of course, it wouldn’t be a fairy tale if the heroine didn’t manage to help her friend in need and have her own moment in the spotlight, now would it?
The thing I like most about this series is its rebellious spirit.  Diana isn’t a perfect girl; not as a student, an actress, an employee or even a daughter.  She’s a good girl, but has in her a spark of disobedience that is required for most great adventures, and while her forays into the unfamiliar while wearing borrowed clothing don’t always lead her to extreme heights, it’s enough for a thirteen year old on a school night.  Cinderella Cleaners comes packed with a ‘be your own fairy godmother’ mentality that is a good thing to instill in a girl’s mind, even if it means being a little naughty, just a little bit of the time.

Cinderella Cleaners #6: Swan Fake by Maya Gold
2011, Scholastic
Library copy

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Review - "Freedom Stone"

Jeffrey Kluger's Freedom Stone is an odd little book. Part historical fiction, part magical fantasy, it meshes together in the story of one slave child trying to write a wrong, save her little brother from being sold and see her family free. Lillie is thirteen years old when her father is killed fighting for the Confederate army, an act that should have freed her, her mother and her brother, Plato. But when a sack of Union gold is found on her father's person, he is called a thief, and their Master not only keeps the gold for himself, but refuses to free Lillie and her family. Lillie must prove her father was an honest man, and goes about doing so with the help of Bett, the old slave woman who bakes bread. Because Bett has a secret. Her baking can bend time, making it slow down, like the bees outside her cabin, or sped up, as Lillie needs it to do one night when she has a mission at another plantation.
I wasn't sure how I felt about Freedom Stone when I finished it. It had taken a day or two to really get into the story, though once it hit its stride, I was invested and eager to get to the conclusion. There was just something that unsettled me, and I think I know now what it was. The magical element of the story, while inventive, was not really needed. This was a story that could have been told, with only a few changes, with no magic at all. I would almost say the magic was wasted. Lillie is a wonderful character, full of strength and courage, and her story has a certain charge to it that would have been just as interesting without the magic of Bett's stones.
I would still recommend Freedom Stone to readers. My only issue was in wishing the magical elements of the story had been better integrated. As a whole it has value as historical fiction, and its point of view (acknowledging that slaves weren't simply, magically freed when Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation) is one that you don't see very often and was interesting to read. And Lillie is definitely a character worth getting to know.
Freedom Stone by Jeffrey Kluger
2011, Philomel
Library copy

Monday, May 9, 2011

Quickie Review - "The Great Wall of Lucy Wu"

A wise man once sang, “life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans”.  In The Great Wall of Lucy Wu by Wendy Wan-Long Shang, the title heroine learns this lesson the hard way.  Her perfect year, a year in which she’s finally going to have her own room when “perfect” older sister Regina goes away to college, is interrupted by the appearance of Yi Po, her beloved grandmother’s long lost sister.  Lucy doesn’t want to share her room or her life with the newcomer.  She wants to play basketball, and enjoy time with her best friend.  But like John Lennon said, Lucy’s life happens despite her plans.  Shang presents Lucy’s troubles with great sensitivity in this solid first novel.  Lucy is a likeable character, with believable struggles and a spirited attitude towards them.  The Great Wall does show first book cracks, with a few hanging stories and some stock characters, but the central storyline and characters are strong.  It was an enjoyable evening of reading, and Shang certainly has a talent that I’ll be looking out for in the future.
The Great Wall of Lucy Wu by Wendy Wan-Long Shang
2011, Scholastic Press
Library copy

Friday, May 6, 2011

Pet Peeves

Today I ran afoul of one of my biggest librarian pet peeves. Stickers.

I love donations. I bless our donators, and appreciate every single book that comes into our library. But every once and a while, they come with stickers, and it simply drives me up the wall. You see, every book with a sticker takes that much longer to process, because of course they don't just come off cleanly (for stickers that do pull right off with no residue I do a special little happy dance). There's peeling and poking and general nail-damaging work to be done just to prepare it for the SUDS goo to get the rest of it off. Especially annoying are the books from Dolly Parton's Imagination Library. Don't get me wrong, it's a wonderful program (that provides free books every month for children from birth to five years old) and the books I receive as donations are always in great shape...except for the big address sticker across the back, which is near impossible to get off cleanly. When I actually want to keep these books for circulation, it takes five or ten minutes to clean the book up enough to send it to cataloguing. And when you're talking about a stack of twenty or so books, that's a lot of time that gets eaten up.

Today I was processing a pile of donated Wishbone and Goosebump books, many of them with Goodwill stickers on the back that proved nearly impossible to remove cleanly, without damaging the book. After the stack of thirty odd books, I was ready to tear my hair out. Just when the last one was finished and cleaned, who should arrive but my assistant director with a new stack of donated books, mostly picture books. I haven't been through the pile yet, but here's hoping it will be sticker free!

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Review - "Amelia Lost"

Sometimes there is nothing quite so exciting as the unknown.  Unsolved mysteries may be frustrating, but they're fascinating in equal measure.  And any biographer who tackles Amelia Earhart must have a deft hand with the mysterious and the unknowable, not only because of the famous aviatrix's legendary disappearance, but because of the layers upon layers of "myth and legend" that Amelia herself piled upon her person during her lifetime.  Candace Fleming touches on this very difficulty in the opening to her Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart.  Where does the image stop and the real person begin?
Fleming does a marvelous job at peeling back the layers of Amelia’s persona and presents a realistic, even handed portrait of a real woman, a woman with dreams and goals, the intelligence to surround herself with the people she needs and the driving force to make her dreams become reality.  Fleming’s Amelia is a complicated woman, and though she treads lightly, Fleming doesn’t shy away from topics that paint her heroine in a bad light.  Among the topics covered in the book are the beginning of Amelia’s relationship with George Putnam, while he was still married, and the numerous aviators and flying professionals who had serious doubts about Amelia’s skills as a flyer.  Fleming clearly has a lot of respect for her subject, and isn’t afraid to show her weaknesses. 
The most fascinating parts of this biography were the accounts of individuals who claimed to have heard the voice of Amelia Earhart through their radios on the day she disappeared.  People like homemaker Mabel Larremore, who heard Amelia’s voice calling for help.  Fleming ends each of these accounts with questions rather than statements.  “Was Mabel’s story really true?”  She doesn’t offer answers to the mystery, but leaves the reader to draw their own conclusions. 
I wouldn’t say I’ve always been fascinated by Amelia Earhart, but like many others, when the topic is broached, I’m an interested listener.  How could you not wonder how someone like that could simply disappear?  How could the Navy have failed to find her and navigator Fred Noonan?  How could Amelia have made such careless mistakes as not learning how to properly use her airplane’s radio communicator?  And why, after all these years, do we still not know for certain what happened that fateful day?  It’s a fascinating story, one I intend to read more about (I’ve already picked up Mary Lovell’s tame but readable The Sound of Wings), and Fleming has delivered a wonderful book, sure to entrance new readers for years to come.
Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart by Candace Fleming
2011, Random House Children’s Books
Library copy