Thursday, October 26, 2006

River Secrets - by Shannon Hale

Some book club members recently asked me when the next Shannon Hale book is coming out and I realized that I forgot to review River Secrets. River Secrets is the third book in the Goose Girl series about the people of Bayern. This book follows Razo, a boy Isi met in the first book when she worked as a Goose Girl. In an effort to keep peace with the kingdom of Tira, Bayern sends an ambassador accompanied by Enna (a fire-speaker) and a group soldiers. Razo is happy to be included, but he is surprised to be chosen to go when he knows he isn’t a very strong soldier. Razo may be the smallest and the weakest, but he was chosen for the strengths he didn’t know he had and was soon to discover. On the journey he discovers a charred body and doesn’t know if Enna is burning again or if someone wants people to suspect that she is. Through his investigations he’s easily able to make friends with many Tirans high and low in stature and he becomes the best hope the people of Bayern have to keep peace.

As with her other novels, Hale continues to address the issues of classes, war, and prejudice in a way that’s not too threatening to her young audience. Underdogs will relate to Razo and root for him to succeed on his mission and succeed in love.

The romance wasn't as appealling to me as the relationships between Finn and Enna and Isi and Geric, but I think Hale got in right because Razo isn't as mature as the other characters and isn't ready for too much in the romance department.

I’m already wondering when the next book in the series will be released. I can’t wait!

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

The Dog in Chris Van Allsburg's books

Awhile ago the Blue Rose Girls posted about finding the dog in Chris Van Allsburg's picture books. I did a project on Van Allsburg a long time ago and I thought some of you might like this key. I haven't added his newest book Probuditi, but if you're having trouble finding the dog it appears as a teapot on a shelf. I think if you click on my key you might be able to see a bigger copy, but if you want me to email you a copy just leave me a comment with your email address.

I also had to share this quote that I think explains a lot of Van Allsburg's work.
"Lucky are the children who know there is a jolly fat man in a red suit who pilots a flying sleigh. We should envy them. And we should envy the people who are so certain martians will land in their back yard that they keep a loaded Polaroid camera by the back door. The inclination to believe in the fantastic may strike some as a failure in logic, or gullibility, but it's really a gift. A world that might have Bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster in clearly superior to one that definitely does not."
- Chris Van Allsburg

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Vote now!

The Cybils are open for voting so head on over and nominate your favorite books. Don't forget to check out the rules before you vote!

Yellow Star - Jennifer Roy

I’ve been meaning review this book for awhile, but don’t think for a moment that I put off reviewing it because it’s not great. This book was spectacular.

The novel is based on the true story of Jennifer Roy’s aunt Syvia who was one of twelve children who survived the Holocaust in the Lodz Ghetto. It beings in 1939 with 4 ½ year-old Syvia describing the yellow star sewn onto her coat. It follows Syvia and her family as they are forced into the Lodz Ghetto and continues to describe their life until the end of WWII.

Holocaust books for middle grades can be very difficult because they shouldn’t hide the truth, but they shouldn’t be overly graphic and gruesome. Yellow Star walks the fine line perfectly because it’s told from the point of view of a young girl who didn’t always understand the truth and her parents and older sister protected her as much as they could. To support Syvia’s story and prevent any confusion, her story is interspersed with a few brief historical descriptions of the war and the novel contains a detailed timeline at the back of the book.

There are plenty of sad moments, but a few joyful moments too. Since the book begins with the statement that Syvia is one of the children who survived, the readers are spared some anxiety.

Yellow Star is also a good example of one of the few books with a story that is strengthened thru being told in verse. The simplicity of prose matches the descriptions young Syvia lends credit to her perspective as a child.

At the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, Jennifer Roy said her generation was told to “always remember”, but they weren’t told what to remember. In the foreword she said he father was also a Holocaust survivor, but he never talked about it and when he died, his history was lost. I’m certainly glad she was able to preserve Syvia’s experience before it grew too late. Her beautiful story will help children relate to an event that seems so inexplicable to us all.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The Cybils

Sometimes when a new children's literature book award is announced I'm pleased to hear the winners, but often I find myself thinking, "What!?!?!?!?" Well now the children's literature bloggers are creating a new award, and we get to make the nominations and the final decisions. The award just recieved its new name today, The Children's and YA Bloggers Literary Awards, or to keep things simple, The Cybils.

Read all about the rules here on Big A Little a.

I get to be on the nomination committee for middle grade fiction, which is headed by Fuse #8. I can't wait for discussion to begin!

If you'd like to be a part of things it's not too late. There are still some committee positions open!

Framed - by Frank Cottrell Boyce

From the Publisher
Dylan Hughes is the only lad living in his tiny Welsh town. He helps out in his family’s failing garage, managing the petrol log and keeping track of every single vehicle -- including the mysterious convoy of lorries that trundles up the misty mountainside one day. Local gossip soon sniffs out that the slate mines are being used to harbour a valuable collection of artwork, but Dylans more interested in Renaissance inspired Ninja Turtles than the real thing.... But then Dad leaves home, leaving Dylan man of the house and boss of the struggling business. A masterpiece worth a mint might be just what his family needs.

Wow! Just wow! Can I leave it at that? No? Ok, I’m dying to talk to someone about this book anyway. I have finished several books that I need to review, but as soon as I finished this one last night, I knew it had to take priority.

In Framed, Boyce explores how art affects people much like he explored how money changes people in Millions and the result is magnificent. Both books have fictional premises related to real events that make them seen plausible. In Framed, the National Gallery moves all of its painting to be stored in an abandoned mine to protect them after flooding in London makes them hard to insure in the city. The plot might sound crazy until you learn that during WWII the paintings from the National Gallery actually were packed up and stored in a quarry by a very small town. When Boyce learned about the evacuation, he found himself wondering how the world-famous art might have affected the townspeople and thus Framed was born. Dylan’s town, Manod, actually is so far behind the times one might think the book takes place during WWII if it wasn’t for a few modern references here and there like the Ninja Turtles, the movie The Italian Job, and text messaging.

A few parts of the book did seem a bit odd to me, but with Boyce I’ve come to expect a bit of unexplained quirkiness. The beauty in the book is the inventive characters Boyce creates. There’s not a boring person in the book, and I wouldn’t in a million years have guessed the wonderful ways different paintings would change the characters.

I think most people will love this book, but art enthusiasts will especially appreciate Boyce’s illustrations of the power that a few paintings can have when a handful of people have a chance to connect to them.

I think we need to nominate Frank Cottrell Boyce to Fuse #8's Hot Men of Children's Literature series. Some people probably thought Millions was just a fluke and Boyce is a movie man, not a real children's book author, but after reading Framed I don't think anyone can deny Boyce has established himself as an author, and I hope there is much mor to come from him.

Monday, October 16, 2006

The House of Scorpion - by Nancy Farmer

From the Publisher
Matteo Alacran was not Born; He was Harvested. His DNA came from El Patron, lord of a country called Opium -- a strip of poppy fields lying between the United States and what was once called Mexico. Matt's first cell split and divided inside a petri dish. Then he was placed in the womb of a cow, where he continued the miraculous journey from embryo to fetus to baby. He is a boy now, but most consider him a monster -- except for El Patron. El Patron loves Matt as he loves himself, because Matt is himself. As Matt struggles to understand his existence, he is threatened by a sinister cast of characters, including El Patron's power-hungry family, and he is surrounded by a dangerous army of bodyguards. Escape is the only chance Matt has to survive. But escape from the Alacran Estate is no guarantee of freedom, because Matt is marked by his difference in ways he doesn't even suspect.

For those of you that missed out discussion at book club, I wanted to share my thoughts on this one. As I was halfway through the book, my friend Katherine remarked to me that she felt the same way reading this book as she felt reading Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card because she felt sorry for the main character who was picked on and disliked by almost everyone around him. I didn’t think much about it until I finished the book and looking back I’m surprised by all of the similarities between The House of the Scorpion and Ender’s Game. On the surface both books seem to have such different plots, but they both boil down to so many of the same main elements. Ender and Matt both stand out as different from everyone around them, but neither of them fully understands why everyone treats them differently. Both are being raised to fulfill important futures that no one bothers to explain to them. Both are relatively uncared for and have potential for evil, but they are each saved by a young girl who loves them and wants them to turn out to be good. After Ender is sent off to school and Matt is sent to a work camp they are both tortured by the other boys, but they earn loyal followers after they prove their bravery and strength. With the help of their new friends, both boys are able to alter the future of the world and accomplish almost impossible tasks.

For all of their similarities, I still felt like Scorpion was an original works the sci-fi fans will love.

Can you think of another book that would fit in with these two? I can’t.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Penny From Heaven - by Jennifer L. Holm

The next few reviews will probably have summaries from the publisher to save me a little time as I try to catch up.

From the Publisher: It's1953 and 11-year-old Penny dreams of a summer of butter pecan ice cream, swimming, and baseball. But nothing's that easy in Penny's family. For starters, she can't go swimming because her mother's afraid she'll catch polio at the pool. To make matters worse, her favorite uncle is living in a car. Her Nonny cries every time her father's name is mentioned. And the two sides of her family aren't speaking to each other!

EVERYONE seems to love this book. There are glowing reviews everywhere and if you pick up this book, you will probably love it too so I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I did not love Penny From Heaven. Here’s where the confession gets even more shocking; I think it’s because it sort of reminds me of Anne of Green Gables, which I also did not enjoy (pause for gasps). Ok, let me explain; I know Anne is beloved by many, but I just cringe thinking about all of the crazy situations a “good” kid got herself into. Reading her story I constantly wanted to yell at her to stop what she was doing because I loved her, and I couldn’t stand the anticipation of the trouble she was going to get into. My relationship with Penny was much the same. The story, like’s Anne’s, wasn’t really plot driven, it was more of a slice of her life. Penny kept doing things that I knew would not end well, and I wanted to stop reading to avoid getting to the trouble that I knew was coming. Oh Penny why do you always have to go along with Frankie’s crazy plans?

It didn’t help that I was listening to Penny From Heaven in my car over the same few days that I was reading the Loud Silence of Francine Green by Karen Cushman at home and since they were set during the same time period and about girls the same age, I kept comparing the two and I related to Francine a lot more. I also felt like I picked up a lot more knowledge about the time period from The Loud Silence of Francine Green so readers wanting to pick up more of a sense of how kids might have been affected by what was going on at the time, might prefer The Loud Silence (although they will learn from Penny From Heaven that some Italian Americans were imprisoned during WWII because some Americans thought of them and the enemy).

And even though I haven’t seen it in anyone else’s review, the prominent stereotypes of Italian Americans in Penny From Heaven bother me quite a bit. Of course Penny’s Italian grandmother has lived in the United States for ages, but hasn’t picked up much English and spends all her time cooking and takes joy in trying to fatten her family up. She’s extremely emotional and always fighting with her daughter-in-law or crying when someone mentions Penny’s father. The character that really bothered me was Penny’s cousin Frankie, and Italian American kid whose dad was in prison who just wanted to grow up to be a gangster and spent all his time reading about them and scheming up plans for his own crimes. Really, did the book have to go there? Do you know a lot of kids who want to grow up to become a famous criminal?

All of that aside, Penny's complicated family relationships are truly touching and I put down the book feeling happy in the end as I suspect many of you will too.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

November - Short Stories

Our November meeting will be a little different than usual. We'll be meeting at Jessica's to discuss short stories and we'll even read a few aloud. Jessica would like you to read the following:

Best Shorts, Selected by AVI
Newbery Medal-winning author Avi has selected short stories from the past and present in this entertaining collection for young readers. And whether you begin by reading alone or reading aloud, these stories are some of the very best to share. Featuring loyal pets, rogue waves, ghosts who use cell phones, and young people caught up in events beyond their control, these stories are written by some of the most entertaining and esteemed authors of children"s literature. They will have you savoring a quiet moment by yourself, talking during dinnertime with your family, and laughing in class with your friends. Though it may take only a few minutes to read, a terrific short story can take you on a long journey. Are you ready for the trip?

Unreal!: Eight Surprising Stories, by Paul Jennings
Two weird, chilling, and wacky story collections from the inimitable Paul Jennings. "Jennings has found the perfect formula for the scary and supernatural sprinkled with just the right touch of humor. . . . Don't miss out on the fun here".--School Library Journal, starred review. (If you can’t get a copy of this, or it’s companion book, Uncanny, try to read any other of his short stories for children.)

Playing Catch-up

There are several reasons I haven’t been posting much here. It’s partially due to having three blogs, and it’s also partially due to being behind in pretty much every area of my life, but it’s mostly due to the fact that I read I few books that I didn’t like, and I wasn’t sure whether or not I should review them. Lucky for me, the children’s lit blog world has been discussing whether or not children’s literature bloggers should post negative reviews (read Jen Robinson’s take on it here and Fuse #8's opinion here). The discussion got me thinking about where I stand, and I think I’m finally ready to start reviewing again.

Here are my thoughts. I originally started this blog a year and a half ago to keep my fellow children’s literature book clubbers updated about book club. Eventually, I started posting my personal book reviews here instead of my personal blog because I figured the book club members were interested in them and any of my family and friends that were interested could easily read them here too. I am thrilled that other people have started reading this blog, but I still primarily review books here simply to let my friends know what I think about them. If a book I recently read came up during a book club meeting, I wouldn’t feel bad about saying that I didn’t like it, and why should that change on this blog?

Hopefully everyone reading this blog knows that I strongly believe every reader connects to a book differently because they bring different experiences and knowledge with them so each person has a unique interaction with each book they read. I’m always so excited to go to book club and hear that someone else had a completely different reaction to a book than I did because I often learn so much from their explanation of why they felt the way they did about it.

While I hate negative reviews that basically say something to the gist of, “I think this books sucks. Don’t read it.” I find negative reviews that explain the reasons for the reviewer’s dislike so interesting. In fact, a good friend recently told me that she’s never liked the book Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli, which happens to be one of my favorite books and I immediately wanted to know more; I wanted to hear why, and I was glad I listened and learned, even if I didn’t agree.

Sometimes I read a negative review and think, “Yikes, I already know this is a book I won’t like. Thanks for the warning.” Other times I read a negative review, and think I might actually like a book for the same reasons a reviewer hated it. I recently heard from two friends who read a review I wrote about a book that I didn’t particularly like and they both went right out and picked the book up because the review made them interested in it, and I think that’s the way it should be.

I wish there was a book God out there that would send me a message every time I finished a book to let me know which book I should pick up next because I will absolutely fall in love with it, but there isn’t. Instead I’ll have to browse on my own and use my good judgment along with a little help from some reviewers and friends whose opinions I’ve grown to respect and appreciate.

Besides, I need to pick up some books I don’t like once in awhile or at least read about them because they make me appreciate other books all that much more.