Friday, December 3, 2010

Malcolm X: A Graphic Biography

Author: Andrew Helfer
Artist: Randy DuBurke
Hardcover: 112 pages
Publisher: Hill and Wang (November 2006)
Rating: 4 out of 5

Helfer and DuBurke tell the story of Malcolm X's short life—his meeting with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the two leaders describing the opposite ideological ends of the fight for civil rights; and his eventual assassination by other members of the Nation of Islam (NOI)—in narration and detailed b&white drawings, sharp as photographs in a newspaper.

My thoughts:
      There's lots of research to back it up, but here's what I know about my reluctant boy readers:
  • they like to read graphic novels
  • they prefer non-fiction 
Because of this, I'm trying to get away from my manga/fantasy comfort zone and look for more non-fiction graphic novels to talk about. Here's the first one that I picked up from the Farrar, Straus and Giroux booth at NCTE.

This graphic novel is probably for older middle school students or high school students because of the content, but the authors also use very sophisticated techniques in this graphic novel to tell Malcolm X's stormy story. For example, the authors choose to start the book with the famous photograph of Malcolm looking out the hotel window holding a rifle. That as well as the heavy black and white newspaper style photos set the tone for the book. Another interesting thing that they did was on the cover, Malcolm's photo gets larger and at the same time it gets more pixellated and starts to disappear. Again another tone indicator.

I like how Malcolm X is portrayed as both hero and criminal, visionary and bully. I think students need to continue to see the complexities in our historic figures and not the watered down, black and white version that they too often see in the textbooks. This graphic novel may be in black and white, but Malcolm X's story is a colorful and stormy one.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

The Savage by David Almond

Illustrator: Dave McKean
Publisher: Candlewick (2008)
Hardcover: 80 pages
Genre: graphic novel
Rating:  4 out of 5

What happens when a young boy suddenly loses his father? How does a boy cope with bullying when he has lost his hero? Blue Baker is a young boy in pain. He's not alone, but he's not understood by the adults that try to help him. Mrs. Molloy, the school counselor takes him out of class to write his thoughts and feelings down, but Blue thinks its stupid and that just makes him feel worse. Instead, he starts to write the story of "the Savage" who lives in Burgess Woods.

This little story is about Blue's attempt to deal with his father's death and to deal with the bully Hopper who is set on cashing in on Blue's pain by bullying him even more after Blue's dad dies. Blue, in his young boy scrawl starts to write about a wild, savage boy who lives in the woods behind his house. This savage can't talk, but he knows how to survive alone by living on berries and roots and rabbits or whatever he can steal from the nearby houses. No one knows about the savage because if anybody saw him, he would chase them and kill and eat them.

Hopper makes his way into Blue's story and the Savage is used as Blue's alter ego who is strong enough and crazy enough to take on Hopper. That's where Blue's story and his reality starts to blend as the Savage not only shows up in Hopper's room at night, but also in Blue's sister's room. From the Savage Blue learns power, and from Blue, the Savage learns humanity.

Although the writing is sparse, the watercolors by McKean are powerful and full of rage and frustration - a perfect mirror for a boy who suddenly finds himself fatherless and alone. The watercolors are reminiscent of Stephen Gammell's watercolor spattered illustrations in Monster Mama in their anger and spittle.

I think for some the writing is too sparse which would be a detriment to caring about Blue, but I think there is just enough in the relationship with Blue and his little sister Jess to find this little book sad and charming. I empathised with Blue and rejoiced in his empowerment through writing on his own terms. It doesn't matter if the Savage was real or not, only that Blue found his young voice and learned how to roar.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Vampire Loves by Joann Sfar

Publisher: First Second (May 2006)
Paperback: 192 pages
Genre: graphic novel
Rating:  3 out of 5

From the front cover:
Meet Ferdinand, a vampire who bites his victims with only one tooth in order to pass as a mosquito, who loves the music of dead folk singers, and who has no end of trouble trying to make sense of his relationships--some with the living, some not.
 Vampire Loves follows the strangely romantic adventures of Ferdinand and his friends as they flirt with, seduce, cheat on, break up, and make up with all manner of unearthly creatures including ghosts, other vampires, tree-folk, and the occasional golem.

My thoughts:
Considering how long Ferdinand has been alive, one would think that he'd be a much better boyfriend, but he is just as clueless and naive as a young teenager. This first volume starts off with his cheating tree-folk girlfriend asking for his forgiveness for her cheating, and when he freaks out, she leaves again. Ferdinand learns nothing from this exchange. At the end when he seems to have the same argument with his on-again, off-again girlfriend Lani, it's just proof that this is really about the misadventures of Ferdinand, but it's not about the maturation of Ferdinand. 

What makes this GN somewhat charming is Ferdinand's a lusty vampire with no skills. He truly doesn't know what to do with women and he seems to only like women who won't like him back. Still, he's a gentle sort, trying to be moral in an immoral world. The main frustration, again, is that the reader does not see any change from the Ferdinand in the beginning to the Ferdinand at the end.

Source: Liliha Public Library, Hawaii

Thursday, November 4, 2010

DVD Review: The Least Among You

Publisher: Lionsgate (2010)
Cast: Cedric Sanders, Lauren Holly, Louis Gossett, Jr.
Director: Mark Young
Rating: PG-13

Synopsis: (from the product description)

Leaders are not chosen, they are called. Inspired by a true story.

Arrested in the 1965 Watts riots, Richard Kelly (Cedric Sanders) must serve probation at an all-white seminary. Although encouraged to break racial boundaries by its president Alan Beckett (William Devane), the school wants black followers not leaders. Even former missionary, Kate Allison (Lauren Holly), initially rejects Richard. A prison sentence looming, Richard meets Samuel Benton (Louis Gossett, Jr.) -- “the gardener in the basement.” As Samuel guides Richard through his many trials, Richard must choose between his dreams and his destiny.

My thoughts:
I've been gravitating towards feel good movies based on true stories.  Perhaps in these bleak economic times, what I want in my entertainment choices at the end of the week are stories about real-life people who have battled their own demons and have inspirational testimonies to tell about their journey out. I'm not always looking for the fantasy movie, the science fiction movie. I'm not trying to escape issues, I just want to watch the story of other people who succeed despite major setbacks in their life.

The Least Among You is one of those stories. The portrait of Richard Kelly is so realistic because he's in no way perfect. He is a product of the Watts Riot so he's seen many things that the white seminary students have no experience with. Because of the violence he sees in his own neighborhood, it's almost like he is coming into the seminary with a chip on his shoulder, so that seems to egg on the white students who want to push his buttons.

It's also realistic in that although he's at a seminary, that doesn't mean that the Christians are always acting in the most "Christian" way. One of the most disturbing scenes is when he comes back to his room and one of his classmates actually burned his mother's cross on Richard's desk in Klu Klux Klan fashion. I shudder to think that some of these "boys" in seminary are pastors today. 

Like all good movies, there's also growth in the protagonist. Richard is so angry that he doesn't always recognize those kids and those adults that are actually trying to help him and guide him, but part of his growing in this movie has to do with learning to forgo anger and distrust for patience and love.

Louis Gossett Jr. is the moral center of this movie, and as usual, this veteran actor doesn't disappoint. The script is not as tight as it could be, but Gossett's star power is undeniable.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Emily the Strange: Seeing is Deceiving by Rob Reger

Hardcover: 64 pages 
Publisher: Chronicle Books (August 24, 2006)
Rating: 4 out of 5

What I love about libraries is that there are so many treasures just waiting for me even in the most modest public library, so here's a shout out to the Liliha Public Library in Honolulu, Hawaii.
What I love about this library is they have a fabulous young adult section and one of the largest graphic novel and manga collections I've seen. Whoever their young adult librarian is, they are doing a great job. The building itself is also interesting because the parking is on the roof. For more on this library, check out the library tour on the Hawaii Book Blog.

Anyway, I discovered this gothic looking book and found out that Emily the Strange not only has a whole franchise of merchandise, but she has quite a devout following around the world. The character was created by Rob Reger and his company, Cosmic Debris Etc, Inc. out of Oakland, California.

Emily the Strange reminds me of a teen version of Olivia (the pig). She has her same preference in colors (red) with the teen goth black added in, same quick intelligence and the same charming arrogance that comes from the belief that the world truly does revolve around them. Love it!

I found out that this is her 4th book which basically means that I'm on a mission for books 1-3, but in this one, Emily challenges her devotees to see things her way. What I like are the ghostly spot varnish tricks on the page and the clever die-cuts that truly make this book a fun trek into optical illusions and a nice gift for the teen or tween that just doesn't need another Jamba or Starbucks gift card.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Hapless Child by Edward Gorey

My plan was to blog about some "Halloween" type of graphic novels before Halloween, but I've been trying to post this one up for a week and I think it's the book that's haunted. This is the first time I could even post the cover art.

This little Edward Gorey masterpiece of fine line drawing is indeed haunting. There is nothing light and whimsical about the pictures or the story, so although this looks like a children's book, it's not.

Orphaned, hazed by schoolmates and enslaved by a drunken brute, little Charlotte Sophia never finds her happy ending.

It's Gorey stuff, yes, but what is so fascinating is the detailed penwork in the pictures. The illustrations are reproduced in the book in the same size as Gorey's original drawings and a study of the details reveils other horrors that foretell the tragedy of Charlotte Sophia's life.

Hardcover 64 pages/Pomegranate Communications (March 2008)

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

Title:  Mockingjay
Author: Suzanne Collins
Hardcover: 400 pages
Publisher: Scholastic Press (August 24, 2010)
Genre: dystopian, science fiction, action, romance, political
Rating: 5 out of 5

My thoughts: 
    The "much-awaited" book three of the Hunger Games trilogy sounds  so cliche, but I really was waiting for this book with bated breath. Even more of a cliffhanger than Vladimir Tod: Eleventh Grade Burns, Catching Fire was one of those books where I wanted to kick myself for reading it without waiting for the last book to come out.
     In this last book, when we see Katniss, she is making sense of her sudden rescue from her second Hunger Games, and she must face the fact that with the Capitol's destruction of district 12, the rebellion that she seems to have sparked in the districts will be calling on her to lead even if she just wants to take care of herself and protect those that she loves.
     It's easy to forget how young Katniss is when everyone expects her to be politically saavy and stable. I actually like when her insecurities and selfishness come out.
     I think some people won't enjoy this book because the ending is not as satisfying or as tidy as some people want it to be. Katniss will lose people that she loves. She will be betrayed, and she will be abandoned. Does she finally make a choice between Peeta and Gale? The choice is made. In the end, I'm glad that things don't end as happily as it could have. I like that Collins sacrfices some characters that are highly loved. That's what makes this so good.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Chronicles of Vladimir Tod: Twelfth Grade Kills by Heather Brewer

Title: Twelfth Grade Kills
Author: Heather Brewer
Hardcover: 224 pages
Publisher: Dutton Juvenile (September 21, 2010)
Genre: paranormal, action, vampires, romance
Rating: 4 out of 5

Summary:  from product description
As a teenage vampire, Vlad has spent the last four years trying to handle the pressures of school while sidestepping a slayer out for his blood. Now he's a senior, and in this final, action-packed book in the series, Vlad must confront the secrets of the past, unravel the mystery of who he really is, make decisions about his future, and face his greatest enemy. It's a senior year that totally bites. 

My thoughts:  **Spoiler Alert for Book 4**
      After being totally sucked in to book four Eleventh Grade Bleeds where Brewer ends with the sudden resurrection of Tomas Tod, Vlad's father,  this book will seem anticlimactic, but it's inevitable. This is the end of a series that I've invested several years reading. I initially picked up book 1, Eighth Grade Bites  because Vlad was the same age as my students, going through the same middle school angst of school crushes, dealing with bullies and spending time with a best friend who accepts him for what he is (a half vampire/half human). Vlad was an alternative to moody Bella, and Brewer's books, at half the size were more appealing to reluctant readers who wanted vampire adventures without the bulk of the Twilight series.  Each book has Vlad literally fighting for his life from someone or something determined to stake him in the heart. It made for exciting reading, not because he might die, (of course he's not going to die, the series carries his name), but the excitement came from watching Vlad try to hold onto his strong ethics and morals despite the various enemies that come into his life.

As Vlad gets older, though, the books get darker. He's faced with larger issues, and his innocence and strong morals inevitably corrode as his enemies get more powerful and more people that he loves are threatened. This last book is the darkest yet and Vlad, through the five years of this story has not only grown stronger, but a bit more cynical and jaded. In the end, anger and sorrow replace innocence. In the end, Vlad grows up, and as readers, the end is never as good as the beginning, but it's an  end. I'm not really happy with what happens, but I wouldn't change it either. It's like watching your kids grow up -- you can't protect or shelter them from evil, even if you know it will change them.  You just have to watch them go.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Tween Tuesday: Shakespeare Bats Cleanup

Tween Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by Green Bean Teen Queen that highlights great reads for tweens.
Author: Ron Koertge
Paperback: 116 pages
Publisher: Candlewick (February 2006)
Genre: novel in verse
Rating: 4 out of 5
Source: Liliha Public Library

This novel in verse is told from the point of view of 14-year-old Kevin Boland, who while he is laid up at home for months with a bout of mono is given a journal by his writer father and writes poems from a book in his father's library. By playing with different forms of poetry, Kevin shares his thoughts on the loss of his mother, baseball and making out with girls.  Even after he's better, he continues to write poems. The genius in this type of book is that it shows young readers that poetry can be about anything. I also like it because like Locomotion (Jacqueline Woodson) and Love That Dog (Sharon Creech), the protagonist is a  young boy finding his voice for the very first time and using writing as a way to express his sorrows and frustrations.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Poop Happened by Sarah Albee

Title: Poop Happened: A History of the World from the Bottom Up
Author: Sarah Albee
Publisher: Walker Books for Young Readers (May 2010)
Paperback: 176 pages
Genre: non-fiction
Rating:  5 out of 5
 This self-proclaimed "number one book on number two" is a hilarious, informational romp into the history of excrement, civilization's "roll" in it, the ways we dealt with it and all things associated with  poop including hygiene, occupations, fashion, and stench.

Stephanie Harvey, author of Strategies that Work: Teaching Comprehension to Enhance Understanding talks about research that males overall prefer reading more non-fiction than fiction, and  with this book, I found that the guys did gravitate toward this one and actually stick with it and start reading.

I think what's going for this book is the shock value of the title, but what keeps them reading is the large-text information snippets, graphics and unusual sidebars like "icky occupations" and "hygiene heroes." The information is mostly geared around the history of poop in Europe, and London in particular, but it's a very interesting sociological journey, and since we all do it, why not learn about it?

Friday, October 1, 2010

Erin McCahan Blog Tour: I Now Pronounce You Someone Else

The blog tour is on for this book and I must say, I totally just LOVED it and knew that this was a message that I wanted my students to read about. I actually jumped the whole blog tour gun by posting my review early, so my review is linked here.

Review for I Now Pronounce You Someone Else

I would love to give this book away except that it is making its rounds among my own students and there's still a waiting list.

Who is this book for? Girls who want to read a romance story without the sleaze factor and the girls behaving badly scenes. Guys who want to read about a genuinely good guy who doesn't have to be the "bad boy" to get the girl.

If this sounds like the right book for you, check out I Now Pronounce You Someone Else by Erin McCahan.

Guest Post - Author Sharon Dogar

Annexed  by Sharon Dogar comes out on October 4, 2010 from Houghton Mifflin, so I'm thrilled to have the author here to talk about her book. Annexed tells the Anne Frank story from the point of view of Peter van Pels, the teenaged boy who also hid in the annex. Ms. Dogar is a children's psychotherapist who lives in Oxford, England, with her family. She discovered Anne Frank's diary as a child and then again recently when her daughter started reading it. While writing and researching this book, she spent many hours soaking up the atmosphere of the Annex. This is her third novel for young adults. Aloha Ms. Dogar and welcome to Minding the Middle.

Peter van Pels
By Sharon Dogar,
Author of Annexed

What we know of Peter van Pels is almost entirely limited to Anne Frank's diary, and her own personal view of him. He was, it seems, a shy boy, helpful and good with his hands. Reading between the lines of Anne's diary I've tried to imagine what Peter was "really" like. How do I do that? Here's an example: on Peter's arrival in the Annex, Anne describes him as a "hypochondriac" who "won't amount to much." She's fed up and dismissive of his histrionics, as most clever, early adolescent girls would probably be.

Anne describes a boy who sleeps all the time, lacks any type of motivation, has strange physical symptoms and believes he might be dying. If a child in my counseling room felt this way, I'd suspect depression. In fact, from an occupational point of view Peter's depression makes sense; it's a reasonable response to real events. Having to go into hiding to save your life isn't merely depressing, it's terrifying. Peter's "symptoms" and his fear that he's "dying" reflect the reality of both his own situation and of those in the attic. It's possible that this is partly what makes Anne so angry and dismissive of Peter, she doesn't want to be reminded of how dire a situation she is in (not at this stage). She wants to believe that she's safe. Peter's constant 'whinging' (as she calls it) keeps on reminding her that she's in danger.

We all have our own ways of managing fear and difficulty. Anne creates a safe fantasy world for herself (as many writers do) whilst Peter turns his distress into physical symptoms. Looked at in this way, Peter's character takes on a potentially different meaning from the one presented by Anne.

By carefully considering Anne's brilliantly vivid descriptions of Peter, and analyzing what they might mean, I slowly created a picture of how I thought Peter might be, and he came to feel very real to me. Most writers have that feeling of "hearing" their characters voices. Peter's voice (as I heard it) was quiet, thoughtful, questioning, full of feeling and in the end, quite stubborn and determined to be his own person. I can't, of course, know what the "real" Peter van Pels was like, but then again, how well do any of us know each other? How well did Anne know him, and how much was her view coloured by her own needs and desires?

I miss thinking and writing about Peter. I will always feel heart-broken and horrified at the waste of his young, promising life, and the lives of millions of others that the Nazis judged worthless. When it came to researching, imagining and writing about Peter's life in the camps I already felt very close to the character I'd created. I no longer really wanted to take the novel (and Peter) on into Auschwitz. I put off writing every day. I read survivor's testimonies. I went for long walks. I had very bad dreams. I decided that if I was going to go on, and imagine a life in the camps for Peter, then I had to make sure that every part of the "story" of what happened was rooted in reality.  I studied the mechanics of life as a Jewish inmate of Auschwitz. I also realized that in imagining an ending for one person -- Peter van Pels -- I could try to describe the horror and systematic destruction of human life that was a Nazi concentration camp. And so I began to write the final section of the novel. It was written very quickly, almost in one go, and the words came surprisingly easily. Nonetheless, it's not something I would want to do again.

It may sound odd, but for me a part of the horror of human mass destruction is the total disregard those who kill fellow human beings show for the story that each and everyone of us holds within us; the story of our life. So in the end I gave Peter a story. It's probably not the story he would have told himself, but it tries to acknowledge that his story did not end with his arrest on August 1st, 1944, and that there is a story to be told. It may be horrific, it may not be something we want to think about, but Peter, and millions like him had no choice, they had to live it, and unlike the survivors who can give testimony, they died. In their millions. That doesn't mean that they can't be thought about, or that we don't have the right to imagine their story; for me it was the opposite, I felt compelled to create a story.

© 2010 Sharon Dogar
, author of Annexed

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the graphic novel by Tony Lee

Title: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: the graphic novel
Author: Tony Lee (adapter), Jane Austen (author), Seth Grahame-Smith (author), Cliff Richards (illustrator)
Paperback: 176 pages
Publisher: Del Rey (May 4, 2010)
Genre: Graphic Novel
Rating: 3 out of 5

This is a graphic novel of the mash up of Jane Austen's classic Pride and Prejudice with Seth Grahame-Smith's. The mash up is adapted by Tony Lee, who has worked extensively in comics for the last six years, including writing for such licenses as X-Men, Spider Man, Starship Troopers, Wallace & Gromit, Shrek and Doctor Who. His critically acclaimed graphic novel ‘Outlaw: The Legend Of Robin Hood’ has been announced as a Junior Library Guild Selection for 2009.

Illustrator Cliff Richards is a veteran artist best known for his five-year run on the Buffy the Vampire Slayer comics series. He has also worked on several projects for other comics publishers, including Birds of Prey, Huntress, and Wonder Woman for DC Comics, and Rogue, Excalibur, and New Thunderbolts for Marvel Comics.

My thoughts:
If you want more gore and less story, then read this graphic novel instead of the book. There's definitely more zombie splicing, heads rolling and women kicking A in the graphic novel. What's missing, though, is the hilarious nature of the original mash up. In my original review, I did like the goriness of the illustrations, and I think Richards does a fabulous job of illustrating macabre, but I miss the humor.

Some books that I actually enjoyed when they turned into novels:
Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz
Coraline by Neil Gaiman
Twilight the graphic novel adapted by Young Kim
Artemis Fowl: The Arctic Incident by Eoin Colfer, adapted by Andrew Donkin

Any graphic novels that you prefer over the book?

Monday, September 20, 2010

Little Bee by Chris Cleave

Title: Little Bee
Author: Chris Cleave
Paperback: 304 pages
Publisher: Simon & Schuster (February 16, 2010)
Rating: 5 out of 5
Summary from Amazon
All you should know going in to Little Bee is that what happens on the beach is brutal, and that it braids the fates of a 16-year-old Nigerian orphan (who calls herself Little Bee) and a well-off British couple--journalists trying to repair their strained marriage with a free holiday--who should have stayed behind their resort's walls.

My thoughts
 Cleave's book had me at "hello." His first line, "Most days I wish I was a British pound coin instead of an African girl," is an apt introduction to Little Bee, a 16-year-old Nigerian refugee in England. Her voice is the voice of a survivor. The memories she holds inside are both horrifying and character- building. This book has already been highly lauded by the press, but how will it play out for my audience? This book is graphic for the young reader, but eye-opening for the mature readers. This is for the student who is passionate about human rights, who is loath to hurt another human being, or who has horrors they too are holding. Although this book is sometimes too painful to bear, you will keep reading because Little Bee and Sarah also carry hope on their weighed down shoulders. There is humanity still, even if we feel we are in our darkest moments. This is for the people who seem to have no voice. Mr. Cleave gives them a voice, and we in turn need to learn from this that we all must speak up for those that cannot speak up for themselves.

I am very impressed with Mr. Cleave's grasp of these two female voices, both Little Bee and Sarah. The men in the story are confusing to me, but I really gravitate to these two strong females. Like every good book, though, we are haunted by the characters in our waking hours and we want more, so there is a very substantial website that like "reading ladders" will entice you to read more of his work.  I am including a short video of Mr. Cleave talking about Little Bee.


Saturday, September 11, 2010

I Now Pronounce You Someone Else by Erin McCahan

Rating: 5 out of 5
Softcover: 258 pages
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books
Genre: YA chick lit
Source: this book is courtesy of Selena from Booksparks in exchange for an honest review

About the book (from the publisher)
High school senior Bronwen Oliver swore she was switched at birth.  She has nothing in common with her stoic, blonde mother or her ketchup loving brother and dreams only of her fantastical family, the Lilywhites, coming to take her away. 

However, when 22-year-old Jared Sondervan comes into her life she can hardly believe how lucky she is.  He is respectful, sweet and a part of the most wonderful family Bronwen has ever met.  When Jared proposes she doesn’t hesitate to say yes.  But as the wedding draws closer she has to decide whether she wants to be a Sondervan or fully embrace being Bronwen Oliver.

My thoughts
I honestly had a very full Saturday planned when I woke up this morning, but I received this book in the mail this week and just was going to start reading the first chapter with coffee.  I didn't put it down until the very last page. Finally, a refreshing YA chick lit book with romance of the human kind, no conniving, back stabbing drama, and although there is heartbreak, it doesn't wallow in it for 200 pages. Thank you Ms. McCahan! Bronwen is a heroine that young women can look up to. She's got a good head on her shoulders, her morals are sound, and although she dreams that she belongs to another family, she really tries to be a good daughter and a loyal friend. I find Bronwen's voice in the book charming and fresh. Finally a character with her own high standards. It also helps that Jared, the love interest, is a character to "sigh" for. He's got the cutest, non-cheesy, "wish a boy told me that" lines and I think the girls will go gaga for him. No moody, angst-ridden, bad boy here. I laughed, I cried, and at the end, my heart was full. Not a bad way to spend a Saturday.

Erin McMahan has a lovely bio on her blog. Its got Bronwen written all over it. I can't do it justice, just go to her site to read about this first-time novelist. I, having already enjoyed her bio, will wait for her to write more books.

By the way this book, as well as all the other review copies I get this school year are going to the the middle school classroom of Mrs. Tamara Wong Morrison at the Volcano School of Arts and Sciences in Volcano, Hawaii. Public charter schools, and especially Mrs. Morrison's 6, 7, and 8th grade English classroom, are doing a great job of finding creative ways to continue the literature discussions beyond the classroom walls, and I'd like to help by providing books to teens. Middle schools are where we keep readers or lose readers forever. Let's continue to "mind the middle."

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

I am Hutterite by Mary-Ann Kirby

Rating 4 out of 5 for its genre
Hardcover 224 pages
Publisher Thomas Nelson (May 2010)
Genre Memoir
Source this book is courtesy of Book Sneeze

About the book. . .
I Am Hutterite: The fascinating true story of a young woman's journey to reclaim her heritage takes the reader into the inner workings of the little-known Hutterite colony in southern Manitoba where author Mary-Ann Kirkby spent her childhood. Kirkby sets up a vast network of characters, mostly family members, who  provide the reader with insight into this commune where the community kitchen ensures that everyone gets fed, the community school ensures that all the children are cared for and educated, and the outside world, with its technology, commercialism, and strict socio-economic structure just does not factor into everyday life.  If Kirkby didn't throw in some hints about the kinds of equipment and vehicles they used, this story could have been going on in the 1860s rather than the 1960s.

At ten years old her parents pack up their seven children and a handful of possessions and leave the security of the colony to start a new life. Overnight they are all thrust into a world that they don't understand, and a world that doesn't want to understand them. The author is desperate to fit into this new world, even at the expense of denying her heritage and hiding her culture from others well into her adulthood.  This memoir is the author's reconciliation with herself, written really to benefit her son so that he will understand who he is.
My thoughts. . .
When I read, I always try to picture the student that needs to read this book. This book is for the reader who enjoys a quiet book, who enjoys escaping into a world very different than the ones depicted on television, in the magazines,  even outside the door. This is for the reader who doesn't need to read fantasy and science fiction to understand that there are other worlds that exist around us. This is for the reader that feels like they don't quite fit in; the reader who feels that perhaps they were born in the wrong decade, the wrong century. I hope they find solace here. This book is about a people who live and argue and breathe as one family. It is about idyllic complacency. It is also about loss, and culture shock and shame. Mostly, though, it is the author's long journey to acceptance. I think it teaches teens that sometimes secrets and shame can stay hidden for a long time. Sometimes we can swallow the shame about ourselves, about our past and succeed in hiding it from even those that are close to us. But it's never too late to make the journey back. I'm glad that there were still open arms to take Kirkby back, even just for the day, so that she really could tell this story. This story, the story of these people, deserves a wide audience and the right reader to embrace it.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Boy: Tales of Childhood by Roald Dahl

Rating: 4 out of 5
Reading level: 4th - 7th grade
Paperback: 176 pages
Publisher: Scholastic 1984

About the book:
Roald Dahl, author of classics like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, and my son's favorite BFG writes an autobiography of his childhood, and up to the age of 20.

My thoughts:
Mr. Dahl's caricatures of greedy, children-hating adults are so easily manifested in his fiction because of his experiences at boarding school. Here is the fodder for his best characters, and each protagonist in his books seems to hold the innocence and daring of Mr. Dahl himself. Through it all, he keeps his humor and his spunk.

I really enjoyed "The Great Mouse Plot of 1924." After all, if you're going to get a caning from the headmaster, it should be for something especially grotesque.

In a sentence. . .
Mr. Dahl's life is no less entertaining than his works of fiction.

Next steps:
Memoirs at the next level:
Bad Boy: a Memoir by Walter Dean Myers 

Any other next steps suggestions?

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Shimmering: Ka 'Olili by Keola Beamer

Synopses:  from the product description
Voted one of the best books of 2002 by the Honolulu Advertiser. This collection of original stories of island adventures and contemporary legends speak of the place where modern and ancient Hawaii meet.

My thoughts:
Keola Beamer is more widely known for his ki ho'alu (slack key) music, but in this collection of short stories, Beamer puts his story telling abilities to words. The stories run the gamut, from a haole (caucasian) scientist working up at Volcanoes National Park who becomes Kamapua'a, Pele's lover, to Beamer's own hysterical shenanigans with his hanai brother Kaliko trying to create a prize-winning documentary on the camera shy a'ama crabs. Beamer uses his family's original chants to add depth to these modern stories.

In a sentence. . .
The Shimmering is a modern Hawaiian blend of urban and mythical realities.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Ancient O'ahu: Stories from Fornander and Thrum

This is a collection of stories from ancient Hawai'i collected by Fornander and Thrum. If you are familiar with Hawaiian stories, some will be familiar, like the prowess of Maui and his brothers, and the story of the giant pig god, Kamapua'a. Journey around O'ahu through these ancient stories.

My thoughts:
This book is similar to the book on fishing traditions in that some of the characters are the same, like 'Ai'ai, who went around the islands and taught people to fish and maintain a healthy stock of fish.

As someone born and raised on O'ahu, I'm familiar with many of the places, but the old stories, like the story of Kamapua'a and the story of the cannibal king, as well as the siblings who ran away from an evil step mother and created the springs at Punahou make this island feel magical, and sacred, as if despite the concrete and freeway noise, the old ones still breathe in this wahi pana (sacred place).

University of Hawaii Press/140 pages/2nd edition (2002)

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Review: Devil's Arithmetic by Jane Yolen

Rating: 5 out of 5
12-year-old Hannah is apathetic and embarrassed by her grandfather's rantings about the Nazis. She knows that her grandfather and grand aunt are survivors from a Nazi concentration camp, but in typical tween fashion, their stories are just white noise and not important to her. However, during a Passover Seder, Hannah is chosen to open the door to the prophet Elijah, and she is transported into Poland in the 1940's as a young girl named Chaya. As Chaya, she is taken to a concentration camp and must live through the terror of trying to survive, and ultimately die in the camp.

My thoughts:

I think that Ms. Yolen does a great job of bringing the horrors of the holocaust to the tween reader.  The tension of Hannah's struggle to survive at camp, as well as the heartbreak as she begins to lose the part of her that is Hannah is balanced off by the twist at the end that ensures that Hannah will never be apathetic toward her family's history again.

Book pairings: if they like this book, what do you give them next?

Similar topic:
Number the Stars by Jane Yolen (same reading level)
Maus: A Survivor's Tale by Art Spiegelman (graphic YA novel)
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne

Similar genre:
The Watsons go to Birmingham -- 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis
Before We Were Free by Julia Alvarez

Ages 9-12/176 pages/Puffin (2004)/creative nonfiction/source: Hilo Public Library

Monday, July 12, 2010

Hawaiian Fishing Traditions by Moke Manu and Others

In the same way that Americans have folk heroes like Paul Bunyan and Johnny Appleseed,  the Hawaiians have heroes like Ku'ula-kai and his son 'Ai'ai. They fed their communities through their skill and prowess in the sea, and they exhibited supernatural strength to battle their adversaries. Through their actions, they taught the people about conservation, respect and generosity.

My thoughts:
On the most urban of the Hawaiian islands, Oahu, fishing may soon be banned for the non-commercial fishers who are just trying to feed their families. Through overfishing, pollution and a loss of cultural fishing knowledge, the stories of large hauls of fish capable of feeding the community become more legendary. These stories shared by Moke Manu in the 1900's are collections of essays on fishing techniques as well as stories that map the seas around the islands and merge myth and geography.

Many of these stories were orated in Hawaiian, so it's valuable to have a resource like this, and although many of these stories involve the supernatural, on these islands, it's not so difficult to be out on the ocean and feel the mana, the spiritual power that is still alive.

Perhaps the most important lessons from these stories are really abut the ncessity for conservation in order to maintain our lifestyle and independence. Also, in these stories, the three main heroes are adamant about not being greedy and sharing the abundance of fish. These lessons need to be heeded even in these modern times or we will lose the ability to have any kind of control over our waters.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Kalamaku Press/1992/ISBN 0-9623102-3-9

Review: The Girl in the Moon Circle by Sia Figiel

This novella is made up of the fragmented pieces of Samoan life through the eyes of 10-year-old Samoana, or Ana. Her vignettes sway through her village and talk about both the everyday challenges of living (school, friends, having refrigerators and televisions for the first time, crushes on boys), to the harder realities that she can't be shielded from (incest, family violence, suicide, pedophilia). Her observations are perceptive and wise beyond her years.

My thoughts:
This novella is similar to Sandra Cisneros' House on Mango Street -- young narrator, wise beyond their years, living in a small community where everyone's problems are exposed to the perceptive lens of the narrators. In both pieces, we see the social mores of the minority culture (Hispanic and Samoan) through the actions of the people in the "village" as well as a generous sprinkling of cultural phrases. In both pieces we see that there is both devout Christianity as well as debauchery, and in both, kids are often forced to face very difficult situations by themselves.

What made this novella very interesting is that the ebb and flow of the shorter and longer pieces created a kind of tidal feel to the reading, perfect for a story set on an island. The vignettes are musical, meant to be performed, poetic in their imagery, they lull the reader, even in their violence. Through her poetic prose, I think Figiel pulls up from the deep waters the repressed and tabooed subjects like child abuse, and suicide, exposing these issues not so an outside society can judge, but so that her own society can reexamine itself through her prose. Even as a native Hawaiian, then, I am just a tourist in her world.

On the other hand, there is also an allegorical quality to Samoana. In the piece "Pulu Leaves," similar to Cisneros' "Four Skinny Trees," the narrative shifts to metaphor, the leaves speak to her, and she becomes the repository for all our stories. The protagonist may be a young girl, but I don't think this is meant for young readers. I think the age of the protagonist opens up an ability to tell a story without the censorship and moralizing of an adult character. I think through Ana, the story is open and honest. We as the readers bring the morality and censorship.

Rating 4 out of 5
Mana Publications/1996/ISBN 983-03-0236-X

Sunday, July 11, 2010

In My Mailbox

In My Mailbox is a meme started by Kristi at the Story Siren. Please go to her blog for more book ideas.

This week I'm desperately trying to make a dent in my summer reading list that was assigned to my students. I'm moving islands this year and have a new job teaching 9th grade English. The books were assigned by the department so I got the following from the local library:

The Girl in the Moon Circle by Sia Figiel is a glimpse of Samoan life through the eyes of 10-year-old Samoana.

The Shimmering: Ka 'Olili by Keola Beamer, a slack key guitarist and singer, writes of that place where modern and ancient Hawai'i meet.

Hawaiian Fishing Traditions by Moke Manu is a collection of legends essays on traditional fishing practices.

Ancient O'ahu: Stories from Fornander and Thrum - stories collected by Fornander and Thrum in the 1800's and translated into English.

Boy: Tales of Childhood by Roald Dahl

Baby No-Eyes by Patrcia Grace
Baby No-eyes is Te Paania's first child, killed in a car crash before she even leaves the womb. Baby's ghost returns to comfort Te Paania, and when Baby's brother Tawera is born he takes her place in the world although she is always by his side.

Siddhartha by Herman Hesse

I realize that we lose readers in high school when the demands of the books they must read overwhelm their ability to read the books they want to read, so although there are things that I "must" teach in a secondary classroom, I will try my best to balance that with free choice and the power to show learning in a variety of ways.

Happy reading week to you all!

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Follow My Book Blog Friday

Life threw me some curveballs these past six months, but I'm just now starting to carve time from simply surviving to actually being able to do some recreational reading, so I am glad that Parajunkee's meme was at the top of my blog reader. It sounds like so much fun and I get to visit more bloggers!

To join the fun and make new book blogger friends, just follow these simple rules:

  1. Follow the Follow My Book Blog Friday Host { } and any one else you want to follow on the list
  2. Follow our Featured Bloggers -
  3. Put your Blog name & URL in the Linky thing.
  4. Grab the button up there and place it in a post, this post is for people to find a place to say hi in your comments
  5. Follow Follow Follow as many as you can
  6. If someone comments and says they are following you, be a dear and follow back. Spread the Love...and the followers
  7. If you want to show the link list, just follow the link below the entries and copy and paste it within your post! 

Happy Follow Friday!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Review: Never Let You Go by Erin Healy

Title: Never Let You Go
Author: Erin Healy
Paperback: 352 pages
Publisher: Thomas Nelson (May 2010)
Genre: Suspense, Thriller, Christian
Rating: 4 out of 5
Source: phenix & phenix literary publicists (Mahalo Amy!)

About the book: from the publishers
Lexi is a young single mother learning to cope with the aftermath of a family disaster and the decisions of her husband, who left seven years ago. With little left to hold on to, she devotes her life to her only daughter, and is determined to do anything--work grueling hours, sacrifice financially--just to make her happy. But when her estranged husband unexpectedly reenters their lives, her sister's murderer comes up for parole and an unwanted acquaintance returns demanding payment of an old debt, Lexi's world is quickly turned upside-down once again. As hidden sins are exposed and a whirlwind of mysterious forces begin to surface, Lexi is forced to make a difficult choice that could complicate everything.
My thoughts:
The beginning of this book, and the initial entrance of the main antagonist, Warden Pavo, is so horrific and frustrating, that I didn't know whether I should be outraged by Lexi's powerlessness or Ward's crudity and raw evil. Is he Satan on Earth or just a man who knows how to get under someone's skin? I was hoping that this could be a fantasy so that I didn't need to see the inevitable crumbling of Lexi's world. Somehow, if it's a fantasy, I know that I can look away and know that this is not happening in this world, to these characters, it's all just make believe.

Healy doesn't allow me to do this in her book. I had to keep turning away from the psychological and physical violence in this book because it felt too realistic. Most of the violence that happened really could happen, probably does happen in life and part of my enjoyment in reading is that I don't have to see the reality that lives in this world.  I'm tired of reading the newspaper articles about women that are murdered by their husbands. I pass by the soccer field and on one of the fences is a small shrine, erected this month for a woman who picked up her husband from the bus stop in downtown Hilo, had an argument with her husband, then was stabbed multiple times as she ran toward the fence with bystanders trying to help her and cars driving past.  A passerby had to almost run over her husband with his van in order to separate her from him and try to get her help. This book is like that. Lexi by herself  can never protect Molly from Ward. It felt like I couldn't breathe at times, and that there was no hope for Lexi and her daughter Molly.

Ward, though, is only one of Lexi's problems. There's also her husband who abandoned her and is now back for her daughter, her sister's killer who is up for parole (Ward wants her to show up at his parole hearing and speak for her sister's killer or he'll take Molly), her father who lost touch with reality after her sister's murder and is now in a mental health facility, and her own inability to make enough money to get them out of town, or even away from her past. I'm not sure who she can really trust in this book except Molly, her roommate Gina, and cryptic Angelo, Molly's guardian angel who can't really help Lexi, but protects Molly for as long as Molly needs him.

In a sentence. . .
Lexi's 'demons' will keep you up at night in this page-turning thriller. 

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Review: Between Two Kingdoms by Joe Boyd

Title: Between Two Kingdoms
Author: Joe Boyd
Paperback: 176 pages
Publisher: Standard Publishing (March 2010)
Genre: Fantasy/Allegory/Christian
Rating: 4 out of 5
Source: FSB Associates (thanks Anna!)

About the book: from the publishers

In this work of allegorical fantasy, author Joe Boyd takes us on a pilgrimage to a land of two kingdoms, but only one true King. An ancient land, where children never grow old. A living land, where foundations grow in trees and rivers sing and breathe. But also a dying land, where the darkness of a false prince threatens to swallow everything in its shadow.
Enter the adventure with Tommy, a child of the Great King, as he and his friends accept the challenge to live as grown men and women in the Lower Kingdom—where hope is hidden, vision is clouded, and pride twists truth into a beautiful yet deadly deception.
My thoughts:
I thought long and hard about the genre of this book. It's obviously a fantasy book. That was made crystal clear by the time I hit the second paragraph of the first chapter:
The palace marked the heart of this mountain kingdom -- the Upper Kingdom, which had no beginning, but always was. The Great King, whose name was ancient and unpronounceable, ruled the entire expanse of the Upper Kingdom -- every tree and animal, every stream and pathway. His son, the Good Prince, faithfully served his father with eternal devotion. The King and Prince had justly and lovingly ruled their subjects for as long as anyone could remember.
Will young readers who enjoy fantasy enjoy this book? Yes. It has all the components necessary for a successful fantasy: magical elements, universally scary situations tempered by the soft cushion of fantasy, a hero or heroes that must face seemingly insurmountable tasks, and an evil character that seems more outlandish and cartoon-like in this created world.  So taken as just a fantasy, this is the story of a little boy and a loving prince who sees potential in this boy to do great things. He sends him on a quest to the lower kingdom where, with an older mentor, he and his two friends must destroy the evil king and stop this king from bringing chaos on the world. Along the way, they are helped by a nurturing river, as well as strangers who end up being valuable assets to these children.

However, this is not just a fantasy. This is also a Christian allegory. We have the King (in caps) of the Upper Kingdom. He's a more hands-off King, allowing his son, the Good Prince to deal with the minutia of the kingdoms. People in the Upper Kingdom are all 7 years old, and they stay that way forever.  I hesitate to read too much into this, but there are several stories in the Bible where Jesus (the Good Prince) talks about being like children in order to get into the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 18:3). When children of the King move into the lower kingdom, they transform and grow old. They start to forget what it was like in the Upper Kingdom and are easily swayed by the evil king.  Still there are pockets of people in the lower kingdom that still serve the King, and they continue to do the work for the Good Prince.

Again, does this have to read as a Christian allegory? No. I think if you regard it as such, it will seem too heavy handed as a story. The connections and lessons in this allegory just wash over me like a strong wave and I found that I had to just read this as a story, and actually turn off the Christianity aspect of it. I never forgot that the Good Prince was the more approachable and hands on Jesus versus the overseeing and somewhat distant King (God), but I didn't linger on that. I think the story on its own, and the tension and twists and turns at the end are enough to sustain it as a great story. If I dwell too much on the morality of this story, then I lose the excitement of the climax. Of course good will triumph over evil eventually - God's soldiers will always overcome evil in the end - but I needed to forget that in order to savor the enormity of the task that the three protagonists must face.

I think what I'm trying to say is that I acknowledge that this is a Christian allegory, but if you have reluctant tween readers, sell this as a fantasy. The story is exciting, action-packed and reader-friendly.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Live Virtual Author Event tonight 6/28/10

Terry Kate from the blog Romance in the Back Seat is hosting two YA authors in a virtual author event on her site. The live video chat with the authors starts at 8:30 p.m. EST (that's 2:30 p.m. Hawaii time).

You will have an opportunity to chat live with Alyxandra Harvey (Blood Feud, the second adventure in the Drake Chronicles) at 9 p.m. and Meagan Hatfield (Shadow of the Vampire) at 9:30 p.m.

If you are interested in joining, please go sign up at her site below:

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Review: Ponga Boy by Phil Lebherz & Philip Reed

Title: Ponga Boy
Authors: Phil Lebherz & Philip Reed
Publisher: Epic Press (July, 2009)
Hardcover: 180 pages
Genre: Sports fiction
Rating: 3 out of 5
Source: from the authors

My thoughts:
It's World Cup fever at my house, despite the fact that although we loyally taped the 3 am matches, US lost to Ghana for their final match in the tournament. Still, they got to the round of 16. Not too shabby, and the last goal by Donovan will be historic in US soccer. I think our local AYSO (American Youth Soccer Organization) will be filled with boys and girls who are also glued to the World Cup this summer. 

Ponga Boy, the story of a young up-and-coming soccer star from the little fishing village of Los Barilles, Mexico, comes at an appropriate time for middle readers who are interested in soccer. This is the book that could pull reluctant male readers into reading. Pitchu helps his father on their ponga (bait fishing boat), and on his spare time, he plays soccer with his town team. Although the boys play with homemade uniforms on a cement field,  Pichu stands out for his gravity-defying moves. In one memorable game, a vacationing American soccer scout sees Pichu in action and offers him a scholarship to play soccer for the University of San Francisco. In America, Pichu faces many conflicts: prejudice, jealousy, and culture shock. Still, there are many Latino role models that help him along the way. Ultimately, Pichu must make a difficult choice and choose between his own opportunity and the opportunities of his family.

The drawback of this book for some reluctant readers actually has nothing to do with the story and more to do with the format (not enough white space, and the font is too small), as well as the fact that the book is in hard cover. Hopefully, when the movie version comes out, the book will be in paperback. This book is also in audio form and read by actor Tony Plana from the television show "Ugly Betty."

Favorite passage:
...he saw his father staring at him with a look he didn't understand. But years later, recalling this moment, Pichu would realize it was the going away look. His father knew his son had a special gift. He was proud of the gift, since it had come through his blood. But he also knew that the gift would take his son away from him to places that were not as simple and good as this life in Los Barriles. And in those places, his son would be hurt and changed and things would never be like this wonderful moment ever again (7).
In a sentence:
Ponga Boy is a moving tale of an extraordinary boy and his love of soccer and family.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Review: One Red Paperclip by Kyle MacDonald

Title: One Red Paperclip: or How an Ordinary Man Achieved His Dream with the Help of a Simple Office Supply
Author: Kyle MacDonald
Publisher: Three Rivers Press (2007)
Paperback: 310 pages
Genre: Memoir
Rating: 4 out of 5
Source: bought

Synopsis: from product description
Kyle MacDonald had a paperclip. One red paperclip, a dream, and a resume to write. And bills to pay. Oh, and a very patient girlfriend who was paying the rent while he was once again “between jobs.” Kyle wanted to be able to provide for himself and his girlfriend, Dominique. He wanted to own his own home. He wanted something bigger than a paperclip. So he put an ad on Craigslist, the popular classifieds website, with the intention of trading that paperclip for something better. A girl in Vancouver offered him a fish pen in exchange for his paperclip. He traded the fish pen for a doorknob and the doorknob for a camping stove. Before long he had traded the camping stove for a generator for a neon sign. Not long after that, avid snow-globe collector and television star Corbin Bernsen and the small Canadian town of Kipling were involved, and Kyle was on to bigger and better things. 

My thoughts:
Let's not beat around the bush. In 14 trades, and one year, Kyle gets the house (and the girl). I knew that from the beginning because I've already heard the story. However, what makes the book worth reading on a Saturday afternoon when you should be doing more important things like paying bills, cleaning the house, or washing the windows is not the outcome, but the process he took to get to the end.

While trying to get things ready for an upcoming garage sale, I found myself on a roll, all fears of being married to a hoarder pushed aside, when I came across this book. I bought it for my son as a Christmas book. It was something to inspire him as he got ready for his senior year, but since I already knew the outcome, I wasn't interested in reading it. Still, I flipped through it looking for any loose note or money or receipt used as a bookmark when I saw the pictures and obvious title headings (the title heading has to do with his next trade). Being middle school minded, I am a sucker for obvious title headings and pictures, especially pictures where the author always looks like a goofball. What's more, even though he is an adult, his mother still cuts his hair. Nice.

The thrill of the trade kept me reading even though the author's voice was a bit too cornball for me in the beginning. I don't know if his voice changes as an author later on, or I just ignored it, but I wanted to read on and only stopped to pace around and talk to my family when the climax of the "bad trade" happened.  But the trade is not the point, as he so clearly points out, and my finishing the book in one afternoon was not about the trades, but about the process. By insisting on doing trades in person, the author takes us along and invites us not only into his life, but into the very interesting lives of those people who actually find ways to help him trade up for bigger and better.

The promotional parts, the crazy interviews, the media frenzy - those were all skim worthy. I wasn't interested in that, although, I know that the author needed to be media savvy in order to keep this project going. I think self-promotion using the social media as well as traditional media is what many bloggers dream of, but I am always more interested in the human story and this book has many interesting human stories.

In the end, as I go back to gathering "treasures" from my "junks," this book reminds me that an item is only worth whatever somebody is willing to give you for it, but if you don't get in there and trade away your "one red paperclip," then nothing is going to happen except that you still have "one red paperclip." I will try to convince my husband of that as I try to get him to see that the memories will still be there even if the object is not.

Now if only I could trade my 2003 red 4-wheel drive Toyota Sequoia for two smaller cars (preferably one truck and one sedan - both in excellent running condition).

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

From the mixed up files

There's an exciting new blog on the blogosphere, and to celebrate, they're doing a 9-book giveaway of middle school books.
From the mixed up files. . .of middle-grade authors is a blog made up of middle-grade authors to celebrate books for middle-grade readers. Sweet! Their contest ends on June 22nd, but even if you don't enter, add this blog to your reader.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Review: Countdown by Deborah Wiles

Title: Countdown
Author: Deborah Wiles
Publisher: Scholastic Press
Publication date: May 1, 2010
Hardcover: 400 pages
Reading level: ages 9-12
Genre: Documentary novel
Rating: 5 out of 5
Source: Big Honcho Media (thanks Chelsy!)

Synopsis: from inner cover flap
Franny Chapman just wants some peace. But that's hard to get when her best friend is feuding with her, her sister has disappeared, and her uncle is fighting an old war in his head. Her saintly younger brother is no help, and the cute boy across the street only complicates things. Worst of all, everyone is walking around just waiting for a bomb to fall.
It's 1962, and it seems that the whole country is living in fear. When President Kennedy goes on television to say that Russia is sending nuclear missiles to Cuba, it only gets worse. Franny doesn't know how to deal with what's going on in the world -- no more than she knows how to deal with what's going on with her family and friends. But somehow she's got to make it through.
My thoughts: 
In this documentary novel, Ms. Wiles uses her experiences as a young girl growing up in the 1960s to immerse readers in the fear and unease of the Cuban missile crisis through the life of 11-year-old Franny Chapman. Franny, who comes from a military family, lives near Andrews Air Force Base, close to Washington D.C. Franny and her classmates are used to air-raid drills, where they practice how to "duck and cover," but when the air-raid drill happens during recess, the panic not only of the children, but also of the adults quickly brings home the feeling of dread in a chaotic world. It's easy to see how the civil rights movement could gain so much momentum from young people in this time of unease.

What I like about Franny, the main character, is that she is so well developed and authentic. When the family sits down to listen to President Kennedy announce that Russian missiles are in Cuba and can strike Washington D.C. at any time, the 13 days in October 1962 are a huge concern for Franny. She continues to try and pen a letter to Chairman Khrushchev to show him that she is just like the children in Russia with the same feelings and fears, but she also must deal with the stress in her own family. Her 11-year-old self is old enough to try to comfort her younger brother, but not old enough to really know what's going on with her older sister or her parents. She is in that in-between stage where the adults dismiss her as being too young to know what their worries are, and too old to coddle. Her pain of feeling invisible and powerless, while still worried about 11-year-old stresses like friends, boys, homework and being embarrassed really creates an important character in Franny. I know that this is book one of a trilogy of the 1960s, so the book may take on different events, but I hope that somehow I can be in Franny's life a little longer. Despite her awkwardness, the end of this book shows that she will grow up to be a wonderful teen.

This is my first documentary novel, and until I read the author's acknowledgments at the end, I was labeling this as a multigenre novel, but documentary novel is the perfect label for this. Interspersed in Franny's story are snippets of songs and speeches, black-and-white photos and cartoons that not only bring the missile crisis to a new level, but also brings in other subplots like the civil rights movement and the propoganda of the day. The documentary nature of this book shows us the big picture of the 60's while the novel of the Chapman family focuses the microscope on one family trying to continue to live normally. This genre is a powerful way to bring this time period alive.

I think this novel can span the generations. I think Franny's story is appealing to tweens all by itself, but for me, it brings back my little girl  self who watched the Vietnam War on our black and white television each evening, and prayed for the safe return of all our fathers each night before I slept. It brings back my deep sadness as we watched the Challenger explode in the air, a room full of college students standing around one lounge tv, mourning for all the astronauts, but especially our own astronaut from Hawaii, Ellison Onizuka. This brings back the awful call in the morning from friends yelling for me to turn on CNN, and watching in horror and hopelessness as before our collective eyes we watched the second plane hit the towers and we stayed glued to the television as the towers fell again and again. I remember grabbing my two little boys, knowing that like everything else, life would be different, but as Americans, life would go on. It always has. I think that our memories are so embedded in the media, that this genre is a natural way for us to learn.


Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Review: The Revolutionary Paul Revere by Joel J. Miller

Author: Joel J. Miller
Publisher: Thomas Miller
Publication date: April 2010
Paperback: 320 pages
Rating: 4
Source:  phenix & phenix literary publicists (Thanks Shelby!)

Synopsis: from Goodreads
"Quick in the saddle and fast out of town." Watch one of America's most remarkable heroes come alive through fast-paced prose and gripping storytelling.
The Revolutionary Paul Revere starts at a gallop and never slows down. Follow Revere's adventure-filled life from childhood through the French and Indian War; from the prerevolutionary economic disasters through the incendiary tax fights and riots; from military occupation of Boston through Revere's part in the Boston Massacre trial; from his role in the Boston Tea Party through his early service as express rider for the Massachusetts patriots; from the tragic death of his first wife through the whimsical pursuit of a new love; from his role as waterfront spy through his famous midnight ride; from his participation in the worst American naval disaster before Pearl Harbor through his eventual vindication.
Learn about Revere's life in the Freemasons and the secret political clubs of Boston. Discover his role in Massachusetts' ratification of the U.S. Constitution. Get the inside picture of his business dealings, and see how he transformed himself from poor artisan to wealthy industrialist, making everything from kettles to cannons. Revere's life story is the quintessential American story.
My thoughts:
Paul Revere, made famous in the Longfellow poem "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere," was an early model for the struggles and triumphs of the American dream. In the book The Revolutionary Paul Revere by Joel J. Miller, the author pulls together primary documents and other resources to show Revere as the new American -- idealistic, independent, headstrong and innovative.

Unlike some of the other prominent revolutionaries like John Adams and John Hancock, Paul Revere was a laborer, a tradesman who continued to struggle financially as the new America went through its growing pains and teen aged rebellions. Revere also continued to straddle his political views with his financial need to support his large family.

He may have conferred, planned and participated alongside the revolutionaries, but that doesn't mean that he was averse to accepting jobs from loyalists. He was practical after all, and Revere had many mouths to feed at home.

The format of this book, with the little synopses at the beginning of each chapter creates a nice flow and structure to the book. It reads as a student-friendly history book, perfect for research and sure to be enjoyed by those who like the "side story" versions of history. What I learned from this book is that although he was a rather minor player in history, Revere is an example of American gumption and creativity.

About the author:
Miller is the vice president of editorial and acquisitions for the non-fiction division of Thomas Nelson. He has been an editor for more than a decade and is the author of two other books, Bad Trip (Thomas Nelson, June 2004) and Size Matters (Thomas Nelson, January 2006).  For more information about Miller and The Revolutionary Paul Revere, please visit


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