Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick

I recommend this book for: grade 4-7
Wow and a half. I was slightly skeptical when I found out that this one won the Caldecott, but now I'm a definite supporter.

Hugo Cabret is an orphan, the son of a clockmaker who has inherited his love and dexterity for fixing things. He now lives in a train station in Paris, where he keeps the clocks running for his uncle - but his uncle has disappeared, and Hugo is forced to turn to stealing to get enough food. The other thing he has to steal is parts to finish the project his father was working on when he died - an automaton, a mechanical man with a pen. Hugo is sure that if he can make the man write again, he'll get a message from his father. Then the man who runs the toy booth realizes Hugo is stealing from him and takes away his book of drawings of the automaton - and with it Hugo's every hope of being able to repair it.
This is just the beginning. The story is incredible, and it takes you on a tour of Paris in the 1930s, especially when it comes to early films. The presentation is amazing as well, as there are quite possibly more pages of (gorgeous black and white) pictures than there are of text. It's not quite a graphic novel and not quite a picture book, but the pictures tell a good portion of the story very clearly - you don't even have to pore over the details to understand what is happening. And the ending? It was so perfect that I gasped.
Don't trust me or the Caldecott committee? (There's a letter from the author at the top of the page, but keep scrolling down for the reviews.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Revolution Is Not a Dinner Party by Ying Chang Compestine

I recommend this book for: grade 6 and up

Compestine drew on her own experiences growing up under Chairman Mao to write this novel. Ling lives with her parents, both doctors, in a complex with other hospital staff. Her father studied under an American doctor, and so comes under suspicion of being an enemy of the government. An official named Comrade Li moves into their apartment, and although he is friendly with Ling and plays games with her, she soon sees him arresting her parents' friends and tormenting anyone who does not fully support Mao. Over the four years that the book covers, Ling's father is demoted from surgeon to janitor and eventually jailed. Her best friend is forced to become part of the Red Guard, and Ling herself is tormented at school for her long "bourgeois" hair and her anti-revolutionary parents. Between food shortages, Comarade Li, and the gang of young Red Guards who terrorize her at school, Ling is fighting for survival. This is great historical fiction, the kind that puts the reader right into the time and place. The senselessness and fear that reigned at this time in China are palpable, and Ling's rebellions made me want to cheer. A fantastic novel.


Skin Hunger by Kathleen Duey

I recommend this book for: grade 8 and up

I read a few great reviews of this one on the blogs I read regularly, and let me add my voice to the raving - this is a fantastic, engrossing dark fantasy. It tells the story of magic in a world at two different times. Sadima, a girl whose family hates wizards because a charlatan allowed her mother to die, has to hide her ability to communicate with animals until a young wizard named Franklin invites her to come with him and help restore real magic to the world. He and an intense young nobleman named Somiss have plans to learn all they can and open a school where they will teach magic and end the hold fake magicians and fortunetellers hold on the people. Her life with them in the city, their struggles to find the old songs that trigger the magic without getting caught by the authorities, and her growing relationship with Franklin and fear of Somiss make up half of the narrative.

The other half takes place many years later, as Hahp, the second son of a rich merchant, is sent away to learn to be a wizard. He has always suffered his father's cruelty, but he is completely unprepared for conditions at the school. The boys are forced to run around barefoot in the freezing stone passages, liable to be awoken at any time for a lesson, and they are not permitted to help one another. They are not allowed to eat unless they can make food for themselves, and those who cannot make the magic work starve to death. Franklin and Somiss are among the wizards who instruct them.

The chapters alternate between Sadima's time and Hahp's, and it's thrilling to make the connections between the two times. The questions the format raises are also intriguing: what happened to change Somiss and Franklin's vision? Why has Franklin gone along with it all these years? What has happened to Sadima? I think it also should have a lot of appeal for boys and girls, as there is one narrator of each gender - when recommending this one, though, be aware that there is some mention in Hahp's chapters of the male genitalia and his compromises on his wizard's vow of chastity, although it isn't at all explicit. I'm very excited to see what happens in the next two installments of this trilogy.

Hungry for more reviews?

The Naked Mole-Rat Letters by Mary Amato

I recommend this book for: grade 4-7

This one has been on my "to read" list for a couple of years, and I finally stopped pushing it out of the way. I'm glad - it was fantastic! Frankie, 12, is surprised, angry, and hurt to find out that her father met a woman and went on dates while he was away at a conference. When the woman (a keeper at the National Zoo who happens to specialize in naked mole-rats) sends Dad an email, Frankie quickly replies that she should never try to contact him again and takes desperate measures to make sure it doesn't happen. Along the way she finds herself getting into deeper trouble with Dad, her teachers, the school counselor (who sees Dad as her last chance to get married!), and her friends. Although she nearly burns the house down and makes a lot of people angry, Frankie eventually also sees beyond rumors to make a new friend at school, finally really comes to terms with her father over her mother's death, and - as much as she didn't want to - befriends "Ratlady" through their emails. A funny and touching book, it reminded me of the newer and also fantastic Emma Jean Lazarus Fell Out of a Tree, by Lauren Tarshis.

But don't take my word for it!

Monday, January 14, 2008

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, art by Ellen Forney

I recommend this book for: grade 8 and up

Junior is an outcast on the Spokane reservation for several reasons - he was born with fluid on the brain, which caused all sorts of physical problems. He has to wear ugly, lopsided glasses, he has seizures, and his body is lopsided. But he has other problems too - poverty, an alcoholic father, a sister who lives in the basement doing nothing, and Junior himself is the constant target of bullies on the rez. Still, he accepts it until a conversation with a teacher prompts him to do something no one else ever has - start attending the white school 20 miles away instead.

Instantly, Junior goes from being an outcast to a traitor. He's ostracized at his new school for all the same reasons he was on the rez on top of his race, and the reservation people (even the adults) begin to ignore him completely. Even his former best friend hates his guts. Things come to a head when he makes the basketball team at his new school and they play a game at the reservation school.

As with most great stories, there's a lot more going on here than Junior's personal life. There's a lot of tragedy but also some hope for a young, slightly vulgar, talented young man who wants something better for himself than what he sees happening to his family members. There are a lot of serious topics addressed, sometimes lightened with Junior's funny cartoons. It wasn't one of my favorite books of the year, but it was enjoyable and went into a few places that YA fiction tends not to go, so it's definitely worth reading.

From full-time reviewers.

Friday, January 11, 2008

A Crooked Kind of Perfect by Linda Urban

I recommend this book for: grade 4 and up

Zoe dreams of playing the piano, but when her super-anxious father goes to the music store, he comes home with an organ instead. Playing 60s TV themes is not what she had hoped for, but Zoe tries to make the best of things - even if her real dream is to play a grand piano in Carnegie Hall. None of Zoe's dreams seem to work out - her best friend ditches her for the popular crowd and their ridiculous shoes, and her new friend comes home with her every day but ends up baking with her father (since Dad doesn't like to leave the house, he does a lot of correspondence courses in things like cake decorating). Also, Mom is a workaholic and her organ teacher enters her into a competition where she'll be playing against kids who have been playing the organ for years. There's a lot of disappointment in this book, but instead of moping (much), Zoe moves on and finds things that make her happy. This was a lovely book with funny and touching moments, and I think Urban captured a lot of the spirit of being a kid in a period of transition. Recommended and a half.

Professional kind of reviews.

Miss Spitfire by Sarah Miller

I recommend this book for: grade 6 and up

This book takes the reader inside the mind of Annie Sullivan as she meets Helen Keller for the first time, struggles with Helen's habits and family, and faces her own personal demons. I was unfamiliar with Sullivan's history, which is a story as inspirational (and sadder) than Helen's. Annie just wants someone to love her, and envisions Helen being that person, but it is difficult. Helen has no manners and does whatever she wants, from putting her hands in everyone's dinner but her own to locking Annie into their bedroom when she doesn't want to have another lesson.

I definitely recommend this one for its historical value, the new look at some famous women, and the realistic portrayal of their emotions and struggles. I devoured it!

The pros.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Sweet Far Thing by Libba Bray

Huzzah, my 100th post! To celebrate, I'm reordering the pile of books I have to blog and reviewing one I've been anticipating for months - the fantastic Libba Bray's The Sweet Far Thing.

I recommend this book for: grade 8 and up

In book 3 of the series that began with A Great and Terrible Beauty and Rebel Angels, all of Gemma's problems are coming to a head. In our world, her debut is creeping closer, her father is sinking back into addiction, and her brother is trying to raise himself in society and failing. Perhaps most stressful, Kartik has disappeared and she finds herself thinking of the Indian boy far more than is proper . . . In the realms, the tribes are becoming restless, and Pippa has started a tribe of her own. They all want their share of the magic, but Gemma is unsure that she should actually give it to them as she promised. Unsure of who to trust or what her visions mean, beginning to be overpowered by the magic that she herself cannot contain, Gemma tries to find the answers to all of her questions and problems, but she stands to lose everything that is important to her if she makes a wrong choice.

I finished this one in about 2 days, despite the 819 pages. There are some shocking revelations, some tearful goodbyes, and plenty of new opportunites for the characters. I think my favorite scene was the one where Gemma finally reveals to her brother the power she has, changing their relationship forever. It was a sweet moment. There are also plenty of sweet moments (and spicy ones too, for that matter!) with Kartik - don't worry Mom, nothing is explicit! I'm very happy with the conclusion to this series, and I'm intrigued to see what Libba Bray comes out with next . . . This will continue to be a series I hand out to girls who want some supernatural romance.

Does My Head look Big In This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah

I recommend this book for: grade 7 and up

Amal is an Australian Muslim who goes to a snobby prep school. She misses her old school, where everyone was of her faith, but she has made new friends and has a reasonably easy time of it - until she decides that she's ready to wear the hijab full time. Suddenly she's an outcast at school, with even her crush acting strangely. The school administration heartily disapproves, and Amal is whispered about and openly confronted when terrorists make an attack on Australian tourists.

But deciding to cover her hair is overall a positive experience for Amal. Her declaration of faith is a strength to her - not that she's a weak character at all. She's constantly making wisecracks and standing up for herself, even though she is sometimes unsure or making a stand before she fully understands what's going on. There are a lot of funny moments in this book, even though it deals with some serious issues - how far to go in following your faith, religious intolerance, teen runaways, and even a touch on eating disorders. It was also interesting to get the Australian perspective - I know that as an American I hadn't really thought about immigrants in other countries, but Amal is surrounded by Australians who originated in other nations, and their stories are varied and fascinating. The facets of Islam that might be unfamiliar are clearly explained without taking away from the story. I definitely recommend this book for anyone looking for insight into the life of a Muslim teen or anyone who likes stories about girls standing up for themselves and winning.


Hoot by Carl Hiaasen

I recommend this book for: grade 5 and up, adults too!

I guess I'm a backward Carl Hiaasen reader - I read his adult books in about 8th or 9th grade, and now I'm reading his YA novels! I was not disappointed - Hoot has the quirky characters, beautiful Florida setting, and the hilarious elements of mild eco-terrorism that I've come to expect from Hiaasen.

Roy has been depressed ever since his family moved from Montana, which he loved, to Florida. Nothing about Florida interests him - until he sees the barefoot running boy. Where is he going? Why isn't he in school? These questions intrigue Roy so much that he decides to find the boy, and his search leads him to joining the boy's quest - preventing a pancake house from being built over a nesting ground for threatened owls. Can a few middle schoolers really make a difference against a big, determined corporation? Of course they can - and with style.

Roy has other battles to fight as well, namely with the school bully, and he definitely proves that using your brains is definitely better than using force against bullies of all ages. Sure, Mullet Fingers resorts to some fairly hilarious/dangerous tactics to halt the construction (including alligators in the portapotties), but in the end it is Roy's more legal approach that saves the day on more than one front. No worries though, this isn't just a tale about being a good citizen - there are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments and a great story that make this a fantastic read.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Fire from the Rock by Sharon M. Draper

I recommend this book for: middle and high school

It is 1957 in Little Rock, and Central High School is about to be integrated for the first time. Only a few black students will be chosen to represent their community by going to the traditionally white school, and Sylvia is one of the ones chosen. Can she go through with it? Opposition runs high among people of both races, and although she has a white friend who goes to Central, she's not sure she wants to leave all of her friends and her new boyfriend behind. As the integration date gets closer, Sylvia has to make choices about where she stands and what she is willing to suffer for integration. The historical details are appalling and fascinating: the mob of protesters, the troops that the governor called in to keep the black students out of the school, the violence and hate that you can feel as Sylvia walks through it. All of that is portrayed very well.

What I didn't like about this book was the awkward dialogue - even in conversations with people Sylvia has known for years, she fills in personal background or throws in historical details for the reader's benefit. I found it really difficult to read, although I kept reading because of the compelling story. I also was disappointed in the portrayal of the students trying to get in to the school - since Sylvia drops out, she watches it on TV instead of being in the mob, and I felt a lot of the emotional impact was drained out of the scene because of it.

A second opinion.

Just Listen by Sarah Dessen

I recommend this book for: high school

Have I mentioned how much I love Sarah Dessen? I devoured The Truth About Forever last summer, and Just Listen fully met my high expectations.

Annabel is a teen model who had it all, until her popular and wild best friend disowned her. Now life is misery - she has to deal with being an absolute pariah at school and the ugly insults of her former friends on top of her home problems - one older sister has an eating disorder and Mom could fall into depression at any moment. The only thing that seems to keep her going is Annabel's modeling . . . and Annabel doesn't want to do it anymore. Add in the true reason that her friends have cast her out - what happened at that party - and you get some serious issues.

Throw in Owen, an angry loner who stays inside the world of his iPod and happens to come upon Annabel when she needs some help. The beginning of their friendship, which blossoms into more, is a turning point for Annabel as she starts to learn about music, anger management and making herself happy.

This is not a book I could talk in middle schools: there's teen drinking and partying, and one vivid scene of sexual assault which is crucial to the story. For readers mature enough to handle that, this is a fantastic story with characters as alive as the ones you meet in any high school, where a girl learns not only how to just listen, but how to speak up.

The pros.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson

I recommend this book for: grade 4 and up

Yes, I know that Christmas was a week ago, and that this book is a classic that has been around for longer than I have. However, I didn't read it until a few weeks ago, so maybe there's someone else out there who needs to know - this book is fantastic.

The unnamed narrator is a young girl whose mother is in charge of the church Christmas pageant. It is much the same every year, until the Herdmans show up. Who are the Herdmans? Six siblings who terrorize the town, smoking cigars, dispensing beatings, and generally scaring the pants off of every other kid they meet. So when the Herdmans show up at church (they were told that there were refreshments, otherwise they never would have bothered) and decide that they want to be in the Christmas pageant, none of the other kids are brave enough to volunteer for the main roles. Just like that, the church pageant is full of Herdmans and everyone is predicting disaster.

What happens, though, isn't a disaster at all. The new perspective these kids - who have never heard of Jesus - bring to the story makes everyone agree that the performance is the best Christmas pageant ever. Hilarious and touching, I can see why this is such an enduring classic.


Song of the Sparrow by Lisa Ann Sandell

I recommend this book for: middle school and up, fans of Arthurian legend

I was excited to hear about this book - the life of the Lady of Shallott! Written in verse! How tremendous! I'm sad to say, I was a bit disappointed.

The premise is wonderful - Elaine of Ascolat lives with her father and brothers in King Arthur's camp since their mother was killed and their home destroyed. She heals the wounded and mends clothing and armor for all of the men, thinking of them all as her brothers. The exception is Lancelot, to whom she wishes to be much more than a sister. Then the ladylike, pampered Gwynivere arrives, and they are enemies from almost first sight. Girlish jealousy is not the worst of Elaine's problems, however - all sorts of events are set into motion, including one of Arthur's most famous battles, in which the two girls will play a crucial role.

This Elaine is not confined to a tower, but those who have read Tennyson's poem will recognize some of the images repeated in this work. Fans of Arthurian legend will find much familiar and also some pleasant surprises - for instance, both Elaine and Sir Tristan find much happier endings in this tale than in any of the other reworkings I've read.

My biggest problem with this book was the verse, which seemed very uneven. The best bits of poetry were wonderful, but some of the parts that seemed like an attempt to be elevated fell flat with me. The dialogue was sometimes spot on and sometimes very awkward. In the end, the story was fantastic, but the form could have been improved.

No reviews, but here it is on Amazon.

The Trouble With Violet by Anne Mazer, ill. by Bill Brown

I recommend this book for: grades 2-5

This first book in the Sister Magic series introduces 8 year old Mabel, who is very organized, and her wild, messy little sister Violet. Mabel is always annoyed by her younger sibling, but strange things start happening that get under her skin even more. The last straw is a visit from their strange Uncle Vartan, who they discover has magic - and although Mabel yearns to have it too, Violet is the one who has inherited that particular talent.

This is a simple chapter book, probably too hard for some 2nd graders and not exciting enough for some 5th graders. The ending is rather abrupt, but it leads right into book #2.

Tell me more, tell me more!