Sunday, January 31, 2016

The War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Cover image for The war that saved my lifeAda lives with a very abusive mother and her little brother, Jamie, in a flat in London at the beginning of WWII.  Ada was born with a club foot, and her mother refuses to let her leave the flat for fear that someone will see her.  She doesn't educate Ada, or even try to teach her to walk.  When the children are evacuated from London and sent to the country at the beginning of the war, Ada sneaks out with her little brother, and they are sent to a village in the area of Kent.  There they are taken in by a single lady who "doesn't like children." Miss Smith soon finds that caring for the neglected children fills a space in her own empty heart.

This was such a sweet book!  This isn't like Heidi, or Polyanna, where the cheerful young girl brings life to an old lonely person.  Ada arrives with a boat load of emotional issues.  She loves being somewhere where an adult treats her like a real human being, but at the same time, she knows that it is only temporary, and if she opens her mind and heart now, it will only be more painful later.  It takes a lot of patience and time for Ada and Miss Smith to come to trust each other.  Also, the historical detail about the war is interesting.  The reader really gets a sense of what the war might have been like for the British who didn't live in the big cities. I am glad it won the Newbery Honor.

The audio version of this book won the Odyssey award this year.  If you are looking for a great book to listen to alone or with your family, this is a great choice. (320 p.)

Book, My Autobiography by John Agard

There is a new trend in Children's literature to call nonfiction books, "informational" books.
Image result for book my autobiography agardWe have recently made that terminology switch in my library.  This book exemplifies why that shift has become popular.  This is an informational book about the history of books.  It it written from the point of view of the book, that is, Book is personified and talking about his history in first person.  "I remember when I was a clay tablet, and scribes wrote on me with a stylus" and that kind of thing. In that respect, it is fictional (because books can't talk, etc), but it does give a lot of information. Book's story covers the whole gamut of history from earliest cave paintings to ebooks.  The narrative is interspersed with quotes and poems.

This is a decent informational book on the topic.  The facts are pretty good and the writing is more entertaining than your average text book.  The one factual over-generalization that bugged me was that they grouped cotton paper and wood pulp paper together as if they were invented at the same general time period.  It said that paper made of plant fibers, both cotton and wood, was invented in the middle ages (or something like that).  Cotton paper was invented in the middle ages, but wood pulp wasn't used for paper until the 1800's.  It was a big deal when wood pulp paper was invented because it made paper way cheaper and easier to produce, but it also caused all that acid paper problem in the 1800's and early 1900's.  This book totally missed all that.

Even with that oversight, it was a pretty good read. Book has a lot of personality and panache.  I expecially liked the conversation between Book and ebook in the last part of the book.  It was pretty funny and reflected the way a lot of old-timer librarians feel about newfangled book formats. (144 p)

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Nightbird by Alice Hoffman

Cover image for NightbirdTwig is a loner in her small town of Sidwell, Massachusetts.  She never accepts invitations to parties or play dates.  After a while most people just stop paying attention to her.  She spends her time at home with her brother and mother, both even more reclusive than herself.  One day a family moves into the old deserted house near Twig's house.  They have a girl Twig's age who is so friendly Twig can't help but want to hang around with her.  She knows she should avoid the girl, Julie, because of a dark history between her family and twig's family involving a witch and a curse, but Twig's longing for a friend overcomes her fear that her own family secret could be revealed. 

This story had a lot of potential.  The plot was fine, and the characters were fine.  The problem was in the writing.  It was like Hoffman had too much back story she had to introduce, but not enough time to introduce it naturally.  So she kept just sticking it in, suddenly and without warning, wherever she needed it to advance the plot.  Twig would suddenly "remember" something from the past, or she would go to the library, and even though most of the documents from that period in history she was looking for had been destroyed by a fire, the one document that gave all the details she wanted in a nice little package, just happened to survive the fire.  Too many convenient coincidences.  I shook my head and rolled my eyes over and over as I read this one.  I am surprised that Hoffman has been a NY Times best seller before.  Her other books must be better than this one.(199 p)

Masterminds by Gordon Korman

Cover image for MastermindsHere is another exciting adventure series by Gordon Korman.  Eli, Malik and Tori live in an ideal town called Serenity.  There is no crime, there is no poverty, and all the citizens try extra hard to be good neighbors.  It is such a nice place that Eli never minded that he had never left his hometown. One day a friend invites him to bike outside the city limits to see an old car that he found out in the desert.  As soon as Eli leaves the city limits, he becomes violently ill and is picked up by the security force of a nearby factory and taken to the hospital.  When he awakens, he discovers that the friend he was with when he left town has been shipped off to live with his grandmother.  The sudden departure of his friend, and a mysterious note he left behind make Eli, and his friends, Malik and Tori, begin to question all they ever knew about their life. Is Serenity all that it appears to be?

This story has elements of "The Truman Show" but with even more complicated motivations for the false utopia.   As always, Korman's characters are well drawn, his plot is intriguing, and his action scenes are carefully crafted for optimal impact.  The story ends with only partial resolution, but do not despair.  Number 2 in the series, Criminal Destiny, will be released in just two weeks.(323 p)

Sunday, January 17, 2016

The Chosen Prince by Diane Stanley

Cover image for The chosen princeThere are starting to be more fantasy novels set in the Greek and Roman time period, and this is one of them.  Alexos is prince of Arctos, and at his birth an augury reveals that he is the one Athene has chosen to end a centuries' long curse on his country.  His father does everything in his power to make Alexos strong and ready for the challenge. When Alexos is 12 years old an unexpected event throws into doubt his ability to fulfill the prophecy. Alexos flounders for a while, but with the help of kind mentors, gradually starts to find his way back and submit himself to Athene's will.  Meanwhile on a distant island two children grow up in an idyllic setting with a kind and wise father.  Athene is preparing them, as well, for something they cannot foresee or understand.  In the end the prince and the children must conquer the greatest challenge of all to fulfill Athene's inscrutable plan.

I really liked this book.  I think I enjoyed it more than anything I have read in a long time.  It is written in kind of an odd style, but actually, it reminds me of when I was translating Latin texts in college.  It has a "Latin-ate" feel to the language.  What I liked about most, however, was the moral strength and innate goodness of the main characters.  In so many children's fantasies, battles are won through violence or force. This book is all about compassion, courage and forgiveness.  It got really mixed reviews on Goodreads, but it gets a star from me. (357 p.)

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Curiousity House: The Shrunken Head by Lauren Oliver

Cover image for The shrunken headPhilipa, Sam, Thomas and Max, are all performers at Mr. Dumphrey's "Dime Museum of Freaks, Oddities and Wonders." Each of the tweens has a special freakish ability which they use as they begin to investigate the theft of the Museum's star attraction, a ghastly shrunken head.  The deeper they investigate the theft, the more people die, until suspects are dropping like flies.  Is it a curse, as the brash news reporter has asserted across the tabloid headlines, or are there more sinister motives than the kids ever imagined?

This is a fast paced, gumshoe-type mystery, with lots of action and thrills.  There were a few little plot holes in this story, but the fun interaction between the four kids more than makes up for it.  The depression era, freak show setting is also a lot of fun, suggesting a time when Ripley's Believe it or Not kind of museums were all the rage. This is the first in the series and there are a lot of unanswered questions at the end. I look forward to the next which will be coming out in May. (362 p)

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Rush Revere and the First Patriots by Rush Limbaugh

Cover image for Rush Revere and the first patriots : time-travel adventures with exceptional AmericansRush Revere is a middle school substitute history teacher/time traveler.  With the help of his time traveling horse, Liberty, he takes his students back into the past to witness important events in American history and to meet historical figures.  In this book (#2 in the series, I didn't read #1 and I don't think it is very important to read them in order) Rush Revere takes the kids to key events that preceded the Revolutionary War.  They meet John Hancock, Ben Franklin, Samuel Adams, and Paul Revere. They witness the Boston Tea Party, the First Continental Congress and other events. During each visit a famous historical figure teaches one of the children a valuable life lesson.

This is not great literature.  It is mostly a history lesson, sugar coated with some humor and fantasy elements, and loaded with super-patriotic flag-waving propaganda.  The reason I read the book is because I look at Publisher's Weekly fairly regularly to see which are the top 20 selling children's books of the week.  It has been astounding to me that during the past year these Rush Revere books (I think there are currently 4 titles) have been on the list over and over again.  Lots of people are buying these and giving them to kids.  Is it the schools, or is it parents in an effort to "make learning fun?"

I am not sure what to think of this book. On the one hand the story was mildly entertaining and I did get a refresher course on some historical facts. On the other hand, they are so unabashedly bias, didactic and right-winged. There is no balance, and there is no exploration into the real complexity behind the characters or events portrayed.  It is all, "Hooray for America" and "Aren't the Founding Fathers wonderful." I guess they are as good as a grade school text books, which also give only superficial, slanted portrayals of history.  They are probably slightly more entertaining than text books. So, if your kid is struggling with American history, go ahead, give them a try. (256 p)

Friday, January 1, 2016

Pip Bartlett's Guide to Magical Creatures by Jackson Pearce and Maggie Stiefvater

Cover image for Pip Bartlett's Guide to magical creatures : a novelPip Bartlett loves learning about magical creatures, so she is not too disappointed when her mother arranges for her to spend the summer with her aunt, who is a magical creatures vet.  Pip has a secret; she can talk with animals, so she soon becomes a valuable asset at the veterinarian clinic.  Her skills become invaluable when her town is overrun by Fuzzles, little creatures that burst into flame when they are nervous.  Pip, her aunt, and her new friend, Thomas, are in a race against time to keep the cute little Fuzzles from either burning down the town or being exterminated.

This was a cute and lighthearted little book that would be appropriate for a fairly young child who was a advanced reader.  Nothing terribly scary happens, and there are some funny scenes and mild underwear and flatulence jokes.  This is a good choice for readers who have been enjoying books like "The Rescue Princesses" or the "Animal Magic" series and are ready to move up to a slightly longer offering. (184 p.)

Crenshaw by Kathryn Applegate

Cover image for CrenshawHere is yet another book that has received good reviews this year.  Jackson lives with his mother, father, and younger sister in a small apartment.  His mother works two jobs, but his father struggles with health problems which make it difficult for him to hold a job.  Jackson starts to worry when his parents gather up all their belongings for a yard sale.  He is afraid they will once again be homeless like they were for nearly a year when he was younger.  As he worries about what might be coming, his imaginary friend, a giant cat named Crenshaw, starts visiting him like he did when he was little.  Jackson knows he is too old to have an imaginary friend, but maybe Crenshaw is just what Jackson needs to get through the hard times.

The theme of imaginary friends has been a popular one in the past couple of years. The Adventures of Beekle, which won the Caldecott last year was about an imaginary friend. I must admit that seeing an imaginary friend, like the one portrayed in this book, sounds a lot like serious mental illness to me.  That said, it was a cute book, and the characters of Jackson and all his family were very well developed and sympathetic.  The book portrays an authentic child's view of what it is like to be homeless and  hungry, but by setting the homelessness in the past, Applegate keeps it from being too scary and overwhelming for a young reader. This one might be a real Newbery contender.  (245 p.)