Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Review - "The Apprentices"

Sequels, while often hoped for, are tricky things. Working with preconceived notions of characters and situations can be daunting for an author. Sometimes, the old magic just isn’t there, and sometimes, you get something that strikes just the right balance of something old and something new. The Apprentices, Maile Meloy’s sequel to her 2011 middle grade debut The Apothecary gets the balance almost just right.

Two years have passed for Janie and Benjamin since the events of The Apothecary. Janie is in school in the U.S. and Benjamin is traveling the world with his father, trying to do good in troubled areas. Despite being memory drugged at the end of her previous adventure, Janie has recovered most of her memories, thanks to Benjamin’s forbidden and sometimes confusing communiques. She has even begun an experiment to recreate one of the alchemical recipes from the Pharmacopoeia, the desalinization of sea water. She is so close to achieving this goal, in fact, that she attracts some unwanted attention, and as a result, she is thrown out of school on trumped up charges, and her nearly completed experiment is stolen. What Janie doesn’t know, is that what the nefarious Mr. Magnusson really wants is not her experiment, but her friends, Benjamin and his father. Janie is bait. From here The Apprentices is a tight chase to the finish, with Benjamin trying everything in his power to reach Janie, and Janie trying everything in hers to keep Benjamin safe.

Adventure stories must have risk if they are going to succeed. If your heroes don’t stand to lose something, where is the danger? In Janie and Benjamin’s world, the risk is huge: nuclear fallout. It doesn’t get much bigger than that. In The Apothecary, the resourceful crew manages to contain a nuclear blast, and the baddies at work in The Apprentices are trying to make sure such a thing never happens again. Soviet spy and British traitor Mr. Danby is back, with new motives, but much the same goal. And Mr. Magnusson, the slightly slimy, island owning, kidnapping businessman is an effective villain. He’s just smart enough to be a serious problem.

If I had one problem with The Apprentices, it would be with the character of Pip. In The Apothecary, I was Pip’s defender. I was charmed by his Artful Dodger-ness, and found him a necessary relief from the doom and gloom. Here, however, Pip’s role is so marginalized as to be practically unnecessary. The plot could have continued, and in fact, concluded without his help, and his inclusion in the story at all feels like a forced attempt to bring all the previous players back for the second volume.

The Apprentices, like The Apothecary, is a mature middle grade read. It’s not for the dabbler, or the faint of heart. There are heavy issues at play, and as our characters traverse farther and farther into teenagedom, there can only be more heavy on the way. But it is a rewarding read. Meloy’s use of language is above par, and her pacing and scenarios will keep you up at night, turning pages, until you’ve reached the end.

The Apprentices by Maile Meloy
2013, Putnam Juvenile
Preview copy provided by publisher for review

Friday, June 21, 2013

Review - "Same Sun Here"

I get requests at the library every so often for “multicultural books”. Generally, they are looking for picture books, but there will be requests for middle grade books as well, especially books that are good to read aloud with a classroom. The past few years have given us several titles to fit this exercise, one of my favorites being Shooting Kabul by N.H. Senzai, and 2012 offered another wonderful example: Same Sun Here by Silas House and Neela Vaswani.

Meena lives in New York City’s Chinatown, by way of India, and River lives in coal-mining Kentucky. They are paired together by chance in a pen-pal program, and quickly start to bond over their shared experiences. Both Meena and River live without their father, who works away from the family. Both have grandmothers to whom they are very close. And both feel the danger of their homes being uprooted: Meena by her pernicious landlord and River by the dangerous practice of mountaintop removal. Meena and River share stories and advice, argue about boy/girl dynamics and eventually find strength in each other.
Same Sun Here not only gives glimpses into the lives of two very different cultures, it offers examples of families that are struggling economically, right on the cusp of the 2008 financial crisis. Meena and River’s letters are a unique historical document, taking note of Barack Obama’s election and the variety of opinions and reactions this brought in different parts of the country. House and Vaswani are very conscientious of their audience and never let the fear or outrage overwhelm the story. Always we are drawn back into the inherit goodness of these two children and their burgeoning friendship. Though the story ends on a bit of an ambivalent note for one of them, there is still a powerful hope than remains.
Written in two distinct voices, but never feeling alien to each other, Same Sun Here is a valuable book. It teaches compassion and the urgent need to stand up what you believe. I’ll be glad to have this book in hand when teachers and parents come to call.

Same Sun Here by Silas House and Neela Vaswani
2012, Candlewick
Library copy

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Backlist Files - "The Race to Save the Lord God Bird"

One of the best heist films I’ve ever seen is not really a heist film at all. Nothing is stolen, though the rules are thoroughly broken. This particular film is called Man on Wire, a documentary directed by James Marsh which tells the story of tightrope walker Philippe Petit who in 1974 strung a wire between the World Trade Center Towers in New York City and spent the better part of an hour walking back and forth, evading police and capturing the attention of the world (This story was dramatized in the Caldecott winning picture book The Man Who Walked Between the Towers by Mordecai Gerstein). What makes the film so successful is its appropriation of the heist film tropes (the plan, the execution, etc.) to tell a real life story.

I bring this up, because in reading Phillip Hoose’s masterful The Race to Save the Lord God Bird I was strongly reminded of mysteries and thrillers I’ve read where the ending is doubtful, but the clues continue to pile up. Hoose tells the story of the “Lord God” bird, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker like it were a detective story. We meet the usual suspects, good and bad, responsible for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker’s disappearance and reappearance through time. There are mysterious occurrences and unexplained rumors abound. What was once a plentiful population dwindles through hunting (which continued to happen even after the species was named endangered) and the destruction of their habitat. Finally, all that is left of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker are a few credible but unsubstantiated sightings.
Hoose’s writing is so neat and so clever, his prose reads like good fiction. This is a classic mystery, a natural whodunit. In addition to being a well told tale, the story of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker is a perfect example of the need for preservation, a story of the people who fought for that preservation and how laws came into effect to achieve it. I was prompted to read this book in anticipation of Hoose’s newest ornithological tome, Moonbird: A Year on the Wind with the Great Survivor B95. I can only hope that this new title lives up to the high standard set by its predecessor.

The Race to Save the Lord God Bird by Phillip Hoose
2004, Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Library copy

Friday, June 14, 2013

Review - "My Mixed-Up Berry Blue Summer"

How do we start to talk to our kids about tough issues? Not having any children myself, I’m often in the difficult position of having to advise parents on tackling tough subjects, offering books that might help them start a conversation. But one conversation that doesn’t seem to be happening in children’s literature for middle grade readers is that of gay marriage and gay equality. There are books for younger readers and listeners, picture books like Donovan’s Big Day and King and King that present gay marriage as a matter of fact, but once you pass the picture book stage, there’s very little out there. There are a few series that feature gay parents, like Lauren Myracle’s Flower Power series (two Moms) and Amy Ignatow’s Popularity Papers (two Dads), but it wasn’t until My Mixed-Up Berry Blue Summer by Jennifer Gennari that I saw a text that actively took the issue of gay marriage and equality and tried to make it relatable to a middle grade audience.

For eleven years of June Farrell’s life, it has been just June and her Mom. And this was okay. It wasn’t that June didn’t want a dad, or didn’t wonder what her biological dad was like, but her mom was her world, and she liked it that way. And then Mom met Eva, and everything changed. Now Vermont has passed a law allowing for civil unions for gay couples and June’s Mom wants to marry Eva. It’s not as if June doesn’t like Eva (though they certainly have their differences), but she’s not sure she wants an addition to her family. And then there’s the community to think about. It seems as if so many people are against the civil union law, and there’s even a campaign started to boycott the family business. All of this unrest interferes with June’s life, especially when her mom forbids June from entering a pie in the local fair. The whole summer seems to unravel for June, who has to decide how she feels about her mother, about Eve, about those who call her mother names and has to decide once and for all to stand up for herself and those she loves.

The subject matter of My Mixed-Up Berry Blue Summer is definitely not light fare. It gets a little heavy, especially with some of the truly unsettling name-calling that gets bandied about. But kids are smarter, savvier and more empathetic than we adults sometimes give them credit for. I think a book like this is important. Is it perfect? Hardly. The opposition, the Take Back Vermont-ers, is painted in very broad, one-note strokes. These are bad people, monsters even, a caricature which reduces the quality of the discussion. A parent would have to be on hand to explain that not everyone that opposes gay marriage is a foaming-at-the-mouth hate monger. But the book gains points in the struggle within June herself. She wavers on how she feels about having a gay Mom, about having a new step-mother, about what it means to have people out there hate you just for being who you are. In June’s struggle, Gennari has found her conversation, and parents and caregivers can find a starting off point to talking about a very sensitive issue.

Overall, I feel as if a book like this can do more good than harm. Anything that teaches and encourages our kids to think out of the box and for themselves and think about the need for equality among all people is a good thing. We need more of this conversation.

My Mixed-Up Berry Blue Summer by Jennifer Gennari
2012, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Library copy

Review - "Summer of the Gypsy Moths"

The cover of Sara Pennypacker’s (well known for her Clementine stories) 2012 novel, Summer of the Gypsy Moths, is quite misleading. It depicts two girls on a beach, their hair blowing about in the wind, one girl’s arms raised up in what appears to be a celebratory fashion. On first glance, one might guess this was the story of two girls and their summer of fun. But looks can be misleading. The jacket art, by Julia Denos, is actually more telling if you look closely. Neither girl has a smile on their face. The girl in the background looks pensive, and the girl in the foreground, downright defiant. Their separation is also telling. These girls are hardly acting like best friends. Clearly, there is more going on here than meets the eye.

Stella lives with her Great Aunt Louise (her mother is, for lack of a better word, absent). She would love to have time with her family to herself, but Louise has also taken in a foster child, Angel, to be a companion for Stella. This is a problem, because Stella and Angel do not get along, like oil and water. Their plans are to ignore each other, and hope the summer goes by quickly. But when Great Aunt Louise dies suddenly, leaving the children in a lurch, plans change. Stella does not want to go into the system, and Angel doesn’t want yet another foster family. So together the girls decide to bury Louise in the back garden and fake their way through the summer, making up a myriad of excuses whenever anyone comes to call. Part of their deceit involves having to take care of a set of summer vacation cabins, including handing out keys, babysitting and cleaning up. Can the girls keep up the pretense? Can Angel earn enough money to make it to her aunt’s apartment in the city? Can Stella hold out hope that her mother will return, and they’ll live a happy life together? Can a real family be found, even in the midst of such a mess?
In case you’re wondering, the titular gypsy moths refer to a species of the insect that attack Great Aunt Louise’s blueberry bushes and against whom Stella wages a fierce war. And of course, they are symbolic, representing everything from the outside world that threatens Stella’s little piece of happiness. I wrote in the beginning about the cover being misleading, but really, it’s very representative, you just have to read the whole book to understand why. Stella’s posture of defiance and Angel’s of quiet consideration is only earned after weeks of hardship and struggle. Pennypacker has really outdone herself here, creating rich, varied characters and a story that is hard to forget. The road Stella and Angel travel is not an easy one, and is partly of their own making, but their journey is extraordinary and not to be missed.

Verdict: More middle grade from Ms. Pennypacker please!

Summer of the Gypsy Moths by Sara Pennypacker
2012, Balzer + Bray
Library copy

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Review - "Three Times Lucky"

I’m not really one for mysteries (at least adult mysteries), but every once and a while, one comes along that captures my attention and keeps me reading to the last page. A good page-turner must have compelling characters, believable set-ups and something palpable at stake. Luckily for me, and everyone for that matter, first time middle grader Sheila Turnage delivers all this in spades in Newbery Honor winner Three Times Lucky.

Moses “Mo” LoBeau is pretty lucky, as far as things go. As a baby, she washed ashore in the little North Carolina town of Tupelo Landing, and was lucky to be found by the Colonel, a man with his own mysterious past, who took her in and raised her as his own. Now a “rising sixth grader”, Mo works part time in the town’s cafĂ©, hangs around with her best friend Dale, and sends messages in a bottle to her “upstream mother”. But when the murder of a local man upsets the equilibrium of Mo’s life and puts Dale in the hot seat, Mo sets her sights on being a detective, determined to clear Dale’s name and solve the mystery. Along the way she’ll face danger, make alliances, and find out the truth that things (and people) are not always what they seem.

The subject matter of Three Times Lucky is awfully heavy, what with murder, abandoned infants, amnesia and a child accused of a heinous crime, but the remarkable thing about Turnage’s writing is that everything comes across so effortlessly. The language is light and accessible, the characters are true to life and very easy to imagine and, seen through Mo’s eyes, even the weightiest of occurrences can be broken down and approached in Mo’s no-nonsense manner. Though she frets, Mo never seems to lose control, and I loved that about her. The stakes are high for Mo and Dale. Dale’s innocence is questioned, and Mo stands to lose her whole family when things take a turn for the worse. Turnage succeeds wonderfully at ratcheting up the tension to a frenzied peak before the inevitable reveals and conclusion. We don’t get everything we want. Not every mystery is solved (but at the same time, Turnage caps the action perfectly, so that we’re not left with any dangling storylines). I would love if Turnage returns to Tupelo Landing at some time in the future, but for now I’m intensely happy with her first offering, a top-notch pick for mystery lovers, lovers of realistic fiction and fans of enterprising young people the world over.

Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage
2012, Dial
Library copy

Backlist Files - "Let Me Play"

I am not a sporty adult, and I never played school sports (unless marching band counts, which it totally should), but growing up, I tried to take advantage of sporting opportunities that were available to me. I played elementary age soccer, the only girl on an all-boy team. When I got older, I was a short-stop for my town’s softball league. As I got older, and school (and band) took precedence, sports were phased out of my life, though I remain a fan. Every two years I go all out cheering for athletes competing in the Olympic Games, winter and summer, and last year it was especially sweet watching the London 2012 Games, having read Karen Blumenthal’s Let Me Play: The Story of Title IX: The Law that Changed the Future of Girls in America, and realizing all that had to happen so that women like Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh-Jennings could have their day in the sun.

Let me get one thing out of the way right off the bat: this is a book about politics, not sports. Anyone going in to this book expecting to read inspiring stories of female athletes will be largely disappointed. What you get instead is a historical portrait of the grueling political process that eventually made Title IX possible. Blumenthal gives great attention to leaders in the fight for equal rights, including Edith Green and Patsy Mink, and does through some ink in the direction of leading athletes like Billie Jean King. Hard facts are well sourced and though the text has the tendency to get dry at times, the tone remains light, held up by numerous archival photographs and editorial cartoons. Let Me Play is an engaging work of non-fiction, offering a view of the political victory that helped change not only women’s involvement in sports, but education and the workplace as well.

I recommend that you know what you’re getting into before you get into it, because if politics bore you, this might not be the book for you. But if you’re interested in glimpsing a part of American history that laid the framework for the lives of millions of girls and women, this little book will do the trick.

Let Me Play: The Story of Title IX: The Law that Changed the Future of Girls in America by Karen Blumenthal
2005, Atheneum Books for Young Readers
Library copy