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