Thursday, August 30, 2012

Small as an Elephant by Jennifer Jacobson

11 year old Jack and his mother planned one last camping trip before school started.  But on the way to the camp ground, Jack and his mother quarrel, and when Jack wakes up in his tent the next morning, his mother, the car, and all her camping equipment are gone.  Jack is not as surprised as most children would have been.  Jack's mother has left him before for short periods of time. So he waits, but she never returns.  Finally he decides to make his way from Main to his home in Boston on his own.  The book is an account of how he makes his way, finds food, shelter and transportation so it is kind of a urban survival story.  It is also a story about a child dealing with his mother's mental illness. Flashbacks show how, over time, Jack learns to cope with his mother's "Spinning Times" when she loses all sense of propriety and goes off on wild tangents. Jack is a sympathetic character.  He is both intelligent, but realistically 11 years old. He makes what, to a child, would seem to be logical plans that then go wrong. Over the course of the book he gradually accepts the fact that his mother can't take care of him anymore, and that there are other people he can turn to for help.  (275p)

Winter Pony by Ian Lawrence

There are some kids, usually girls, who love books about horses.  I am not one of them.  I never did go "horse crazy" as a child.  I would not have normally picked up a book with a beautiful white horse on the front.  But this book is by Ian Lawrence, and I would basically ready anything by Ian Lawrence because he is an amazing writer and storyteller.  His book, Lord of the Nutcracker Men, is one of my all time favorite books.

This is the story of the ill fated attempt of the Englishman, Robert Falcon Scott, to be the first man to reach the south pole.  He was racing the Norwegian, Roald Amundsen in 1910-1911.  Admundsen used dog sleds, but Scott decided to use motor vehicles, dogs, and ponies.  This story is told from the point of view of one of the ponies whom them men named James Pig. He was born a wild pony in Russia and was captured and used in a mine for several years before he was purchased by Scott's party.  As it turned out all of Scott's ponies were old and broken down before Scott's agent purchased them. As they make their way south one after another of the ponies come to an unfortunate end.  It is a heart wrenching book, but a beautiful book, too.  Lawrence is so good at depicting deep emotion without sounding sappy.  The core of the book is James Pig's relationship with his handler, Patrick.  It was difficult for the horse to trust a human because he had been mistreated in the mines. During the trek Patrick shows the pony kindness after kindness, until in the end James Pig would have done anything for the man.

I liked the book and it made me cry, but there was one thing that bothered me just a little bit.  Lawrence anthropomorphised the horse a little too much.  The pony understood things about human culture that he couldn't have known with his limited experience with people.  Lawrence depicted him as if he were a human in a horse's body instead of a horse.  Still, the book was so well written that I was willing to forgive the one shortcoming. (246 p)

Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Red Blazer Girls: the Vanishing Violin by Michael D. Beil is the second in the Red Blazer Girls series.  This series is a modern incarnation of the Nancy Drew type novels, except instead of having one female detective, Beil has a group of four friends that work on mysteries together.  There is a lot here that grade school reader girls will like. The girls are intelligent and popular.  There is a little bit of romance and a little bit of rule breaking, but not too much.  The girls each have their own abilities, and they each get their moment in the sun as they solve the mysteries.  The clues are written in such a way that the reader can try to solve them, too.  In this one someone decides they are going to make an elaborate set of puzzles clues for the girls.  If they can solve them, one of the girls will be given a valuable violin.  As the girls work on the clues, another violin is stolen from a violin shop near the coffee shop where the girls hang out.  The girls then have two mysteries to solve, one that is a game, and the other that is a real crime. Beil does a good job of writing age and gender appropriate snappy dialog of the characters.  They sound like pre-teen girls that would be fun to hang with. Everything about the story is an idealized, improbable, every-12 -year-old-sleuth's wish-come-true type of adventure. (329 p)

Charlie Joe Jackson's Guide to Not Reading by Tommy Greenwald

Charlie Jackson is cool, he's smart, he's popular, and the cutest girl in his grade has a crush on him.  But Charlie does not like to read, so he has a long standing agreement with his friend, Timmy, to read books for him, and tell him a detailed summary of the plot. Then the unthinkable happens.  Timmy develops a crush on a girl, and with it a conscious.  He decides he isn't going to cheat for Charlie any more, and Charlie finds himself scrambling to find a replacement. It is amazing, and funny, what lengths Charlie will go to to avoid doing his reading assignment.  Of course, in the end he gets caught and has to face the dire consequences. guess after reading Schooled I was still in the mood for school books.  I not not much of a fan of Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and this one looks like it is catering to the market, but I decided to read it anyway.  I was very pleasantly surprised.  The reason why I like this book better than Wimpy Kid is that Charlie is actually really socially intelligent.  Maybe because I was so socially awkward as a teen myself, I find it painful to read about kids who are socially backward. Charlie, however, is popular and cool.  I also liked it because the author resisted the temptation to have Charlie end up discovering the joy of reading in the end.  Charlie ends the book disliking reading as much as he did in the beginning. He faces the consequences of his decisions, but he doesn't have a miraculous conversion.  Some kids never do. Greenwald does a good job of communicating that not being a reader makes a lot of things in life harder, but it is not the end of the world.  As much as I hate to admit it, you can still be a good person and have a good life, even if you are not a reader. (220 p)

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Schooled by Gordon Korman

Cap, short for Capricorn, has lived with his grandma on a communal farm all his life. The community where he lives is a remnant of the 60's nature/hippy movement. He has never watched TV, he has never handled money, and has never even had a hair cut.  When he is 13 years old his grandmother breaks her hip, and he is put into a foster home and sent to a public middle school.  Of course, he is utterly bewildered by his introduction into the modern world and quickly becomes the target of all the 8th grade jokes. The funny thing is that he is so oblivious to social norms that he hardly realizes that he is being ridiculed.  He is a pure example of the 60's nonviolent, peace-love-harmony principles, and he gradually wins over one student after another. This is a story reminiscent of Star Girl by Jerry Spinelli, but it is a lot less melancholy.  It is serious in places, but it is also really funny, and the ending is upbeat and hopeful.

At my library we do a monthly book club for kids age 9-12.  This is the book we have chosen for the kids to read for the book club in September--a kind of "back to school" selection.  The book has a lot of potential for group discussion and fun activity ideas.  We just have to do some kind of tie-dye craft and ti-chi game. It should be a fun program to plan.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Vidia and the Fairy Crown and Lily's Pesky Plant

These are two short chapter books in the Disney Fairies series by Laura Driscoll and Kirsten Larsen.  One area where children's literature has gotten a lot more fun in the past 20 years is in the intermediate readers.  I would have loved books like this when I was in second or third grade.  In the first book, Vidia, a rather disagreeable fairy, is accused of steeling the Queen's crown.  She carefully follows clues to try to clear her name.  In the second, a garden fairy named Lily finds an unusual seed and plants it.  The plant that results causes all kinds of problems for the fairy kingdom.  It smells bad and the pollen gives everyone allergies.  The other fairies want to cut the plant down, and Lily has to decide where her loyalties lie, with her beloved plants or with the other fairies.  The authors of the stories do a good job of balancing the desire to make the stories have happy endings, and the desire to be not be too sappy.  I especially liked the fact that Vidia stays pretty grouchy, even after she receives help from a very sweet fairy, Prilla.  I am not a huge fan of the Disney brand, but these are a fun choice for little girls who are ready to move from early readers to something a little longer. (112 p and 110 p)