Thursday, August 18, 2011

Review - "The Trouble with May Amelia"

Oh May Amelia.  What shall be done with May Amelia Jackson?  She won't wear dresses, won't be a proper lady, and drives her family to distraction with all the trouble she manages to get into.  I was thrilled to learn that May Amelia, the irrepressible heroine of Jennifer L. Holm's Newbery Honor book Our Only May Amelia would be back for another adventure with The Trouble with May Amelia.  Children's lit needs girls like May Amelia, girls who are smart but not too smart, tough but not too tough and full of that particular kind of energy you get when a young girl is on her way to becoming a young woman.  Whether she likes it or not.
The Trouble with May Amelia is very much like its predecessor, in that it is mostly a collection of stories in chapter form.  We get the story of Friendly, the mad bull out to terrorize the children at the schoolhouse, the story of Jaakko and Helmi, May Amelia’s cousins, who come from Finland after a tragedy hits their family, and the story of a business venture that could change the face of the Nasal community and the lives of the whole Jackson family.  And through it all, May Amelia keeps her spirit, even when the worst happens and she finds herself on the outside looking in.
I love May Amelia.  I love her sense of humor, which is in full force here.  I love her dedication to and exasperation with her brothers and most of all her indefatigable spirit in the face of some terrible events.  Holm has once again given us a stellar character presented with unique (and entertaining) challenges and a touching, perfectly May Amelia ending.  I have to say I enjoyed this sequel just as much as the original, which I recently reread.  So what's to be done with May Amelia, who insists on being the grain of sand in an oyster, instead of the pearl?  Nothing, I suppose, because we wouldn't have her any other way.

The Trouble with May Amelia by Jennifer L. Holm
2011, Atheneum Books for Young Readers
Library copy

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Review - "Angel in My Pocket"

What do you do with a book that wears its heart proudly on its sleeve? Cynic that I am, I tend to judge a bit harshly I'm sure. Even when I am taken in by an emotional plot, I'm conscious of my taken in, and part of me is suspicious of that. So what do I do with a book like Ilene Cooper's Angel in My Pocket? It's heartfelt and tries to pack much meaning into its nearly 300 pages. Did I feel myself being manipulated? A little bit. Did I mind? Surprisingly, not that much.
Seventh grader Bette finds an angel coin amongst donations for a local charity and immediately takes a shine to it, though she wouldn't really be able to tell you why. Suddenly her life begins to change, in little ways. A new neighbor moves in downstairs. An opportunity to sing again (which she hasn't felt like doing since her mother's death) presents itself in the form of a big musical production at her school. Bette begins to feel like her coin might be bringing her luck after all, but just as soon as she begins to rely on it, it disappears. And so begins the travels of this little angel coin, which visits three more students (really two, as one is more of a delivery person than a carrier) and is present during difficult and transformative times in their lives.
Does the coin really affect these children directly, or is it a result of a higher confidence and conscience that they are reminded of because of the coin? Cooper is careful not to say directly, though personally I think it is the latter. There's a light dusting of religion here (very light, given that only one main character, Andy Minkus, is particularly observant), though it is of a very non-denominational sort. Twins Andy and Vivi are Jewish, troubled Joe is Catholic, but the book is very non-specific.
What Cooper really has with Angel in My Pocket is a string of really good characters and good situations awkwardly placed together on line where they don't really scan. The transition from Bette's story to Joe's is especially disjointed, and it was several chapters before I felt on solid ground with the book again. But the characters, Bette, Joe, Andy and Vivi, are beautiful creations, fully fleshed out and believable, each with their own drama, their own quirks and their own minds which make their little spheres of the story unique. I particularly enjoyed Vivi's story, which I felt was handled with the right amount of delicacy and determination.
Was Angel in My Pocket a little cheesy? I won't lie; yes it was. But I enjoyed the time I spent with Cooper's characters and the world they inhabited. And I know just the type of child to hand this book to, as well: the one's with that little gleam of a lucky charm in their eye, or perhaps those that could use a helping of luck for themselves. Angel in My Pocket would work as a charm against the big bad world when all you want is something warm to eat, a blanket, and a good book.

Angel in My Pocket by Ilene Cooper
2011, Feiwel and Friends
Library copy

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Review - "Bee & Bird"

I'll admit to sometimes being on the fence when it comes to wordless picture books. Some are fantastic stories unto themselves, like Jerry Pinkey's The Lion and the Mouse and Jeff Newman's The Boys. Others can require so much reader input they're almost not worth the trouble, unless ridiculously beautiful. Still others are of a brand that is not quite fully storytelling, not quite fully concept book. Laura Vaccaro Seeger's books, like First the Egg, would fall into this category. There's a thin story, bolstered by a come-along-and-play type attitude to the narration. A new book, Bee & Bird, from Craig Frazier is another title that would fall into this third category (and in fact, Seeger blurbs the book on the inside jacket cover).
Bee & Bird begins with a close-up of the stripes of a bee, which then backs out into a shot of the bee on a red background, which then backs out into a shot our bee resting on our red bird's head (and so forth). The story unfolds in such pull back reveals and shifts of perspective as we follow our titular pair over fields and water and finally back to the beehive. The art is bright and crisp, and has a note of humor to it. A shot of our heroes looking straight forward made me smile, though I couldn't say exactly why. The progression of images is both logical and surprising in some ways and the cumulative effect is very pleasing. I wouldn't say that author/illustrator Frazier has reached the delightful heights of one of Ms. Seeger's volumes, but Bee & Bird is a definite step in the right direction.
Bee & Bird by Craig Frazier
2011, Roaring Book Press
Final copy provided by publisher