Friday, November 27, 2015

Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt

Cover image for Fish in a treeEveryone thinks Ally is just dumb, even Ally. The other kids seem to be able to read so easily, but it has never been easy for Ally. She lives in constant terror that someone will ask her to read or write in class, so she keeps a store of tricks she can use to get out of reading, most of which land her in the principal's office.  All of that changes when her teacher goes on maternity leave, and a new teacher takes her place. Mr. Daniels quickly figures out that Ally is not dumb at all. He tries to figure out why she has been labeled a "problem" student, but he has to proceed carefully. She has been traumatized by so many other teachers that she is easily spooked.  It takes the concerted effort of Mr. Daniels, and Ally's two new misfit friends, Albert and Keisha, to convince Ally just how smart, and strong, she really is. 

This is a wonderful, feel-good, story.  It is not a new story, nor is it told in a new way, but it is just so sweet all the way through. I feel like I could give this book to any little 8 year old girl without reservations and she would totally love it. It is interesting that I read this just after reading George.  Both books are really the same story; two kids who have a burden of keeping their true selves secret from a judgmental world.  It shows my own bias that I was uncomfortable with one book and totally enjoyed the other.  I guess that is one thing that books do, they show us ourselves. (276 p.)

Sunday, November 22, 2015

George by Alex Gino

Cover image for GeorgeGeorge looks like a 10 year old boy, but inside he knows that he is really a girl. In his own private mind he calls himself Melissa, and dreams of the day he can dress in girl clothes and maybe even try makeup.  He hides his true identity from the world, but it is easy for the kids in his class to see that he is different and to tease him and even bully him about it.  His one salvation is his best friend, Kelly, who has always accepted George just the way he was.  When George's class does a play of Charlotte's Web, George really wants to play the part of Charlotte, but when he tries out for the part his teacher thinks it is a joke.  He can't play Charlotte, because he is a boy, right?  When George finally has the courage to tell Kelly he is really a girl, Kelly arranges to find a way for George to get his chance to play Charlotte and show the world, and his mother who he/she really is.

This is really the first book aimed at pre-teens that portrays a transgender person.  It has received starred reviews all over the place, and it does portray a very sympathetic character.  Gino, who lists his/her gender as "undefined" writes from experience and has a unique insight on what it feels like to always have to pretend you are something that you feel you are not.  I read the book because I wanted to be ready when we get complaints about it at the library.  I think there are many in our community that would be really upset if their nine year old picked up the book and started reading about a transgender child without the parent's knowledge.  I am in a position that I could recommend that the book be moved out of the regular J Fiction area into the nonfiction area about gender issues to avoid future controversy.  But I don't think I will.  Even if someone doesn't believe transgender is a real thing,--that a girl's spirit could be put in a boy's body--some people obviously do, and it doesn't hurt to gain some insight into how they feel.  (195 p)

The Copper Gauntlet by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare

This second adventure of Callum Hunt begins with the young mage spending an uneasy summer with his father and his chaos-ridden wolf, Havoc. Callum's father does not approve of his decision to stay at the Magisterium, but Callum fears his father has further reason to distrust and even hate him. When he discovers that his father is planning on doing something terrible to Havoc, Callum runs away from home and joins his friends at the Magisterium.  Later, when his father is accused of stealing a powerful magical tool, Callum must decide where his loyalties lie.  Will he stay at school and let his father be hunted down, or try to stop his father from doing something they will both regret?

We have more here for kids who want a book just like Harry Potter: The same devoted friends, the same nasty rival, who maybe isn't quite as nasty as we thought, the same kind of plot twists. Black throws in some zombies, which seem to be the "sine qua non" of children's fantasy right now. It was fun to read and I will probably read the next one that comes out.  (264 pages)

Monday, November 16, 2015

The Most Wonderful Thing in the World by Vivian French

Cover image for Most Wonderful Thing in the WorldA king and queen have sheltered their daughter her whole life, but finally decide it is time for her to marry.  They consult a wise man as to how to choose a groom and he advises them to chose the man who can show them they most wonderful thing in the world. They send out a proclamation and while suitors come to try their luck, the king and queen send the daughter out to tour the city.  As she explores her kingdom with a handsome young tour guide, the guide comes to realize what the most wonderful thing in the world really is.
   I haven't reviewed a picture book on this blog for a while, though I read them all the time.  I read so many it would take too much time to review them all.  I really liked this one, though.  French's text is sweet and lyrical, and Barrett's watercolor illustrations are charming. Ms Barrett has set the story in the early 1900's Italy, and the illustrations have a gentle Art Nouveau style, with decorative boarders and long flowing lines.  This is the kind of picture book I would have liked as a little girl.  

Saturday, November 14, 2015

The Dragonfly Effect by Gordon Korman

Here is the gripping finish to Korman's exciting "Hypnotists" trilogy.  Jax and his family have been put under the protection of the US military, and Dr. Mako has been put in jail. Jax along with other mind benders from Sentia and the Sandman's Guild are now part of the government's Hypnotic Warfare Research Department (HoWaRD).  As Colonel Brassmeyer puts the hypnotists through one experiment after another, Jax has a hard time seeing how working for the army is much better than what he was doing with in Sentia.  He finds out when Mako escapes from prison, captures one of HoWaRD's young hypnotic prodigies, and uses him in a new diabolical plot. Now it is up to Jax to defy his family, his friends, and the entire US army to save the world.

This was a pretty good finish to the series with all the psychological intrigue and excitement of the first two, but the adult in me kept kind of rolling my eyes.  I never have had much dealings with the military, but I am pretty sure nobody in the military would get away with treating people like they did in this book. (spoiler alert, don't read on if you plan to read the book and don't want to hear about the end.) At one point the military sets up a fake city full of "volunteers" and then lets them all go through an "experiment" which amounts to a natural disaster.  People get hurt, and almost killed, but the Colonel doesn't stop the "experiment" because he wants to see how it plays out.  Now if that happened in real life, it would be all over the news and the "volunteers" would be suing the heck out of the government.  Then at the end, the government just ends the HoWaRD project and lets the mind benders all go home.  Would that really happen if they had just seen how their abilities could be used as weapons of mass destruction?  So there were some flights of fancy that departed from the real world, but this is science fiction, right? It isn't really supposed to be realistic.  I think a lot of kids would like it. Give it to kids who like Alex Rider or Harry Potter.  (243 p.)

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

Cover image for The MoonstoneDuring the time of the English occupation of India, a ruthless Englishman steals a large diamond from a religious cult statue.  A group of three men from the cult vow to retrieve the stone, or die trying.  The thief manages to keep the diamond out of their hands for many years, but wills it to the daughter of his estranged sister, in payback for her unkind treatment of him. Unaware of its sordid past, the innocent girl, Rachel Veringer, receives the diamond as a gift on her 18th birthday. The night of the birthday party the stone is stolen from Rachel's bedroom. A famous detective is hired to solve the case and everyone at the house that night are suspect, including a maid with a shady past, various other servants, Miss Veringer's two suitors, and even Miss Veringer herself. The story is told through narratives written by the different characters.  There are clues and searches, mysterious foreigners, unrequited love, and many other elements that have become staples of modern mystery novels.

This is very old mystery novel, first written in 1868.  Some people consider it the first mystery novel written in the English language.  As I read it I imagined it as an old black and white movie.  It is full of 19th century stereotypes, but it was a delight to read.  I especially liked the personality of the old butler, Betteredge, who writes the first narrative and thinks that the answer to all life's questions can be found in the pages of Robinson Caruso.  The second narrator, Drusilla Clack is an over zealous Christian and keeps wanting to give everyone religious tracts, calling them to repentance. It almost made me laugh out loud.  It is a longish book, and I must admit it took me a while to get through it, since I mostly read while exercising, but it was well worth the effort. It is a good one for those who like period romance, but are ready for a little different plot. (566 p)

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Francine Poulet Meets the Ghost Racooon by Kate DiCamillo

Francine Poulet is the best animal control officer in the town, maybe in the whole state.  She has 37 animal control awards, and has had her picture in the newspaper.  One night she is called out to capture a "ghost raccoon," a racoon with shimmery gray fur that screams. When it seems to scream Francine's name, Francine is so frightened she loses her nerve.  Can she still be the town's best animal control officer if she is frightened by one screaming raccoon?  It is a long road back, but with the help of her friends on Deckawood Lane she regains the confidence she needs to be who she really is.  This is the second spin-off chapter book from the successful Mercy Watson series. It is increasingly unusual to find a children's book that has an adult as a main character (except, of course, for superhero books). This was not always so.  Mr. Popper's Penguins, and Esio Trot are examples from yester-year.  Now days writers seem to think that books for children should be about children.  (that was mostly just an interesting historical note.) Di Camillo makes Francine have a simple enough problem, and personality,  that the target audience (2nd and 3rd graders) with relate with her predicament.  I don't know if this book will get all the attention that LeRoy Nicker Saddles Up did, but it was a fun read. 91p.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead

Cover image for Goodbye strangerBridge, Em and Tab have been best friends for as long as they can remember, but when they hit 7th grade, their friendship is challenged.  Em gets a boyfriend and Tab discovers social activism.  Bridge makes a new friend in Sherm, but doesn't quite know if their friendship is more than that.  Everything blows up when Em feels pressure to text a risky picture of herself to her new older boyfriend. Both Bridge and Tab know this is a bad idea, but Em wants her relationship with this guy to progress and so she sends the picture.  Of course, it gets sent around to all his friends, and ultimately posted on facebook.

The story about "Sexting" is not the only theme in the book, but I think it was such a good treatment of the topic.  Stead does a great job showing how it starts, how Em trusts her boyfriend, and wants to share something "special" with him. In the story, it isn't even the boyfriend who shares the pictures.  Someone else gets his phone while he is at basketball practice and, in just a second, the pictures is sent to all his "friends." Of course, Em gets suspended and everyone treats her like a slut, and very little happens to the boy because they can't prove who sent it. Parents will see this as a great cautionary tale, but Stead writes it so well it doesn't sound preachy and I think the kind of kids who like "school stories" will like it.  One chilling thing about the story is that the girls are only 13/14.  One of the tensions in the story is that Em has physically matured faster than the other two.  As soon as she has a figure, she is pressured to exploit herself.  It is a sad, but true, commentary on modern society. (289 p)