Friday, February 25, 2011

A Million Shades of Gray by Cynthia Kadohata

Cynthia Kadohata won a Newbery Medal for her book Kira-Kira. I must admit, it was my least favorite Newbery winner of the last decade, but when I saw this book on the shelf, I decided to give Kadohata another try. This book is set in Vietnam during the end of the American involvement there and afterward. The main character, Y'Tin lives in a small peaceful village in the dense jungle. Y'Tin loves elephants and becomes the youngest elephant handler the village has ever had. All he wants is to work with his elephant, Lady, until she dies of old age, and then become a trainer for other elephant handlers. After the Americans leave Vietnam, the Viet Cong a burn the village and execute half of its inhabitants. Y'Tin escapes with two other elephant handlers and they flee into the jungle. Y'Tin has to decide whether to stay with his beloved elephant, or join the freedom fighters who are opposing the Viet Cong. Kadohata thoroughly transports the reader into Y'Tin's life and world. All of the characters in the book are superbly developed and honestly portrayed. The descriptions of life in Vietnam, and the handling of the elephants are amazing. The only problem is that the story is a major downer. Y'Tin's life is shattered about half way through the book, and after that everything he encounters goes wrong for him. As he got more and more depressed and disillusioned, so did I, until by the end I could hardly wait for the book to be over so I could be happy again. I guess that I why I am not a huge Historical Fiction reader. Almost all Historical Fiction is depressing. If I could read books dispassionately, I think I would enjoy them more, but if I could read books dispassionately, maybe I would have never ended up as a librarian.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Green Glass Sea by Ellen Klages

I chose this book for my 13 year old son because it had received a lot of attention when it came out in 2006. My son mostly reads fantasy, but he loved this book and recommended that I read it, too. After reading a several science fiction/fantasy books in a row, I was ready for something more down to earth. This book is set in Los Alamos NM during WWII. It is the story of two girls who move to "the Hill" because their parents are involved with the top secret Manhattan Project. The girls in story don't know what their parents are working on. They only know that "the gaget" is some kind of weapon that is supposed to end the war. The description of life in Los Alamos is fastening, but the the heart of the story is the relationship of the two girls. One girl, Dewey, who is gifted in mechanical engineering, is a loner, happy to be with her dad and her inventions. The other, Suz, large sized and insecure, wants to be part of the popular crowd, but doesn't quite fit in. When Dewey's father has to go to Washington for three weeks, the two girls are thrown together, and gradually come to appreciate the other's abilities. As the girl's friendship begins to develop, the tension in Los Alamos grows as the scientists prepare to do the first nuclear test. Klages does a great job of weaving the moral and political issues surrounded the H-Bomb into background of the everyday life of the girls. This book well deserved the Scott O'Dell award for historical fiction that it won in 2007. (321 p)

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Maximum Ride: The Angel Experiment by James Patterson

It is kind of funny to watch the little YouTube video about this book on Amazon. I don't know if it was a good marketing tool to put the author on the video. He looks like such a stoggy old fogey, but that is not how he writes. James Patterson carefully fashions his YA books to include everything that he thinks teens will like and he has an amazing ability to recreate a believable teen voice. The Maximum Ride series is about a group of children, lead by a 15 year old girl named Max, who are are the product of genetic engineering gone bad. They are humans whose genes have been grafted with bird genes so that the children each have wings and can fly. In addition, during this book they begin to discover that they have other special abilities, like mind reading and super strength. At the beginning of the book, they are living in a nice happy flock, in a secluded house in the mountains of Colorado, when the youngest of the group is kidnapped by the bad guys at the lab where they were all originally created and tested. Now all the others in the flock must rescue Angel, and on the way they learn more about their origins and purpose in life. Patterson is good at portraying their conflicted emotions: their joy in flight, their longing to find out about their families, their sense of betrayal by the only adult they ever trusted. He also includes some teen culture candy, like the kids get to attend a rock concert, and have a punk makeover for free. This was a fun book, though a few times I rolled my eyes when new powers popped up"conveniently" right when they needed them. I am grateful, in this book, that Patterson generally avoids the kind of language that is in some of his other books written for an older audience. (444 p)

Six Crows by Leo Leonni

Leo Leonni is a veteran picture book author/illustrator and his style is very recognizable. In this story six crows keep invading the farmer's wheat field. The farmer puts up a scarecrow to keep them away, but then they build a scare-kite to frighten the farmer. The farmer makes a bigger scarecrow and the crows make a bigger kite. Soon the wheat begins to wilt because the farmer is no longer taking care of it. A wise owl suggests the crows and farmers talk out their differences, and both parties come to an amicable agreement. It is a very simple text, written like a spoken folktale, with only a few sentences per page. Though the story is simple, Lionni's message about talking over problems comes across clearly. Lionni uses cut paper of various textures to make simple but appealing illustrations. The simplicity of the illustrations match the spare text to make a nicely balanced whole.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Interrupting Chicken by David Ezra Stein

When we held our Mock Caldecott this year the week before the awards were announced, this book wasn't even in our set of books that we were considering. Yet, when the winner were read the next Monday, this one won an Honor medal. It is a very cute book (though I am not sure I would call the illustrations "distinguished", they certainly are fun). It is time for bed and little chicken wants his father to read him a bedtime story. The father agrees, as long as the little chicken promises not to interrupt. As the father starts Hansel and Gretel, Little Chicken does, of course, interrupt and changes the story to have himself warn the children of the witch, so they never get caught. On it goes with Red Riding Hood and Chicken Little. Finally, in exasperation, the father suggests that Little Chicken tell a story, and as he does, Father falls fast asleep. Stein does both the text and illustrations. The colors are bold and clashing, which hints from the beginning that this is not supposed to be a restful book. He changes illustration styles to represent the illustrations of the books the father is reading. The book style is spindly and suggests the old illustration styles of the early1900's. He changes styles again for the child's story at the end. I remember once, when my husband was reading a bed time story to Joseph, looking into the room to see both father and son fast asleep on my son's bed. This book really is well done, and worth a check out.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Akimbo and the Elephants by Alexander McCall Smith

In our Library there is a section called "intermediate." This section contains very short simple novels for children that are transitioning from picture book to chapter book reading. Many of the books in this section are in one of two genre, either humorous fiction, (e.g. Junie B. Jones) or Fantasy, (e.g. The Fairy School series). But what if there is a child, probably a boy, or maybe a girl, who doesn't want humor or fantasy? The Akimbo series is a great choice for that kind of kid. Akimbo is the son of a game warden at a wild life reserve in Africa. In this book he finds an elephant that has been butchered by poachers and decides to bring the culprits to justice. Using wit and courage he figures out who the poachers are, and then leads the Rangers to them before they can kill another elephant. As I read the book I admired the way that the author was able to tell the story with very simple vocabulary and sentence structure, without sounding simplified or stilted.(68 p)

Monday, February 7, 2011

Thank You Miss Doover by Robin Pulver

I have been getting behind on my picture books. Here is a new one about how to write a Thank You note. When Jack receives an assignment from Miss Doover to write a thank you note to someone, he thinks he will be done in a flash. But each time he tries his teacher makes him do it over (get it, her name is Do-over). The first one is too short, the second one isn't very complimentary. Jack tries over and over and the letters get more complex. As the letters get longer, Jack begins to wonder if he will ever write a thank you note good enough to please Miss Doover. In the end, he finally writes a thank you note that is just right. This is a cute book with very child friendly text and illustrations. The drafts of the thank you notes are funny. Even fairly young children will understand why it is not quite appropriate to thank a great aunt for personalized stationary because it worked very well as potty training papers for the new puppy. This book is a fun and painless way to introduce both good thank you note writing and revising using multiple drafts.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

RuneWarriors by James Jennewiene

Dane is a viking, son of a local war leader, but he is not sure he wants to fill his father's stern and serious shoes. He is fun loving and likes to make jokes. He needs to choose a epithet to go with his name. He considers Dane the Dangerous, or Dane the Insane. When his sweetheart is stolen by an evil prince, and Dane's father is killed because of Dane's mistakes, Dane goes on a crusade to save his girl and win back his honor, and in the process finally earns the name, Dane the Defiant.

This is an odd book. The story is stereotypical enough. It is the classic hero's quest with all the standard elements: the reluctant hero, the damsel in distress, the wise councilor, the evil villain. But the tone of the book is at the same time melodramatic and "tongue in cheek". The author adds in a bunch jokes that are anachronistic. There is plenty of potty humor, too. It has all the elements thought to appeal to a 5th of 6th grade boy. On the other hand, in some ways it is over-the-top violent. The main characters are whacking off heads and limbs with no compunction or remorse. Part of the way through, I thought to myself, "if this book were made into a live-action movie, and all the scenes were portrayed as written, they would have to make it R rated." Overall, the book reminds me of a novelization of a second rate computer game. That said, I must admit I enjoyed the book. It is witty and clever and the characters where dimensional and, well, likable. (320 p)

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

House of Many Ways by Diana Wynne Jones

This is a sequel to Howl's Moving Castle. Like other of Jone's series, the books in this series are not parts of one big story, but instead very different stories that happen to occur in the same world. Though Howl shows up in this story someone could read House of Many Ways having never read Howl's Moving Castle, and it would work just fine.

In this story a bookish girl is asked by her great aunt to house-sit the home of a wizard. The wizard, who is the girl's great uncle by marriage, is ill and has to go away for treatment. The girl, Charmain, has a very proper mother, so she has never been allowed to learn much about magic, but as she tries to take care of the magical house, she becomes aware that she has a particular talent for magic. While living at the house she meets the wizard's young apprentice who tends to get spells wrong. She also gets a chance to work at the palace library with the king. At the palace she finds out that the King and his daughter are desperately searching for something and she begins to wonder if the wizard's house holds the key to the mystery. Jones seems to like stories where characters just suddenly discover they have magical ability. This happens in several of her Crestomancy books, and also in the first one in this series. Jones' magic systems are unique and quirky. The characters are spunky with a lot of ingenuity. They are fun, lighthearted fantasies with not a lot of drama, but a lot of personality. (423 p)