Friday, February 28, 2014

Worst Distopian Cat-based Young Adult Novel Ever!

Blake, Jon (2008) The Last Free Cat  Chicago:  Alfred Whitman and Co.

It is the near future.  A horrible flu transmitted by cats has devastated the world.  An enterprising corporation has seized the chance to gain a monopoly on disease free cats and sells them to the rich of the world at impossibly high prices.  What are normal cat-loving  people supposed to do?  When Jade finds a stray in her back yard and takes it in, she sets in motion a chain of events that involve the death of someone she loves, a cross-country flight with a boy she hardly knows, and pursuit by corporate/government cops who have to be the most incompetent law enforcement personnel in the fictional universe.  Sound like a ridiculous story?  Yup.
I don't usually do reviews of books I don't want to recommend, but this one is worth it if I can save you the pain.  The main character, Jade, is a cross between a watered-down Katniss from Hunger Games and a slightly more alive Bella from Twilight.  Jade seems to have a multiple personality disorder though, as you alternates between utter calm warrior focus and utter hysterical panic.  I found it hard to care about her as a character.  I also have no idea how old she is supposed to be.
Kris, her friend/boyfriend alternates between being a jerk and being a really useful tough guy/scoundrel.  The love tension doesn't work because the annoyance and hatred they have for each other is far stronger than the attraction.  What do they see in each other?
The ending is a bizarre Dues ex Machina thing. 
On top of all this, the book has enough superfluous vulgar language that it is sure to be challenged by a parent if you tried to use it in class.  I suppose I is written for high school readers, but do yourself a favor. Skip this one.  I am not a cat person, but I have read some excellent stories with cats in them that I have really enjoyed.  This one would be a bad book with or without the cats.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Before they lived in a Boxcar....

MacLachlan, Patricia  (2012)  The Boxcar Children Beginning  Park Ridge, Il: Whitman and Company
Okay, so Patricia MacLachlan rocks and she has crafted a beautiful book in the spirit and style of the Boxcar Children -- but she has got quite a challenge here.  The story starts out with the family living together on the farm.   Even though it is The Great Depression, the Alden's live in a rural domestic utopia.  They are happy and manage to have enough food to take in those more desperate than they are.  There is real community here and the kids you remember from The Boxcar Children -- Henry, Jessie, Violent, and Benny are all as you remember them.
But somehow, MacLachlan has to get us from the scenes of love and domestic bliss to the beginning of the original book -- with the kids orphaned and on the run.  And so the arc of the story has to take a difficult turn through a car crash and threats of orphanages and pre-dawn flight from a home they love and missed funerals, and although it ends hopefully, there is a lot of despair there too.
I think readers who loved The Boxcar Children will love this too, but I recommend that you read straight form MacLachlan's book into the Gertrude Chandler Warner original.  Ideal for a strong second grade reader and up.  Oh, and if you have a low tolerance for overly perfect children and folksy farm settings, you might want to give this one a pass.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy -- buy it and read it.

Schmidt, Gary D.  (2004) Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy  New York:  Clarion

     Go buy this book and read it.
     Okay, that was the short version.  Don't trust me, okay, here is the long version.  You've probably already read Schmidt's Okay for Now.  You remember how when you got about halfway through you couldn't put it down?  You remember how when you were three quarters of the way through you began to get worried because it was clear that the book was going to end at some point and you didn't want it to?   Well, Lizzie Bright does that too, only in a different way.
     Lizzie Bright is a darker book, and the ending is hopeful, but not happy in the same way that Okay for Now is.  And yet, it is a book that rings true about both the things that make the world we live in utterly horrible, and the moments of grace that make life utterly wonderful. 
     But you want to know the plot.  Okay, I'll give it to you -- but I am warning you, the book is far more than just this plot.  You really need to read it. 
     The novel is set in the early 1900s.  Turner Buckminster is the son of a minister who moves to a small town in Maine because his dad takes a new job.  Turner doesn't fit in, has trouble making friends, and finds himself with a lot of time on his hands.  He likes to wander along the beach and one day when he is doing that he discovers that there is an island of the coast of their town that is home to an African-American community. Turner eventually meets and befriends a young (but amazingly full of life) black girl named Lizzie Bright.  The two become best friends despite Turner's father' objections.  Eventually Turner finds out that a businessman in two is trying to pass legislation to evict the community on the island for fear that it will interfere with the tourism they hope to bring in.   Turner encounters ugly racism for the first time in his life and vows to fight it.  Turns out fighting an entire town is not an easy task.
     Look, buy the book.  Read it.  Thank me later.

Graphic Novel Version of Darwin's Origin of Species

Keller, Michael;  Fuller, Nicole Rager  (2009) Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species: A Graphic Adaptation  New York:  Rodale

     I haven't been able to tell if this book contains the whole text of Origin of the Species but I can tell you it contains a lot of it, in the original form.  Normally, this would be a daunting book for a high school student to try to take on -- with difficult vocabulary and lengthy and complicated sentences.  However, the graphic novel version provides support in understanding through the images. 

Although Keller and Fuller don't take full advantage of what the graphic novel format can do (for example, most panel to panel transitions move to a completely different subject, instead of using moment-to-moment transition to engage the reader more in the story), and although the art is certainly competent but not spectacularly engaging, nonetheless, it is an engaging book that should help high school science students connect to what Darwin was trying to say.  The artist clearly understands what Darwin is saying and illustrates the concepts well.  .

There were times when I was reading the book that I could not tell if I was reading Darwin's words of the author's.  This was not a huge problem, but I wish it had been clearer.

These, however, are small problems.  If you teach science and want a good way to connect your readers with a fuller understanding of natural selection, this book would be a good one to have in your classroom.  . 

Monday, February 24, 2014

Real life saga of a Bosnian child refugee

Mattingly, Christobel  (1993) No Gun for Asmir  New York:  Puffin

Mattingly, Christobel  (1995)  Asmir in Vienna  New York:  Puffin

      Neither of these is a perfect book.  Both books narrate the true story of Asmir, a seven year old kid living in Serajevo during the Bosnian war.  Because it is a true story, the plot doesn't always enfold the way it should, dramatic moments don't occur at the moment that would work best for the story.  Some of the characters are not as quirky or dynamic as you might hope. 
     At the same time, there is something gripping about dangerous border crossings when you know you are reading about real flesh and blood people.  When some of Asmir's family manages to get out of the war-torn country, you rejoice with them, but also feel their anxiety over their family members who did not get out -- and unlike a Newbery-winning novel, you cannot count on a happy ending necessarily.
     Mattingly is best known for Australian picture books, and the narrative here is sometimes a bit clumsy -- but the story is gripping and Asmir is a sympathetic figure as he tries to be a good students, a good brother, a good sun, and wait and waits and waits for the family to be united.  
     Both these books are good informational texts that are still engaging.  Especially for US students, it is good to see how children in different parts of the world have the same annoying little borders, the same worries about school the same dreams and nightmares that they do -- and at the same time, that their lives are very different from the lives of these students. 
     Strong fourth grade readers and up could handle the reading level, but both books would probably work as read-alouds for students as young as third grade. -- though fourth or fifth might be better.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Derek Kirk Kim's new extra-dimensional graphic novel!

Kim, Derek Kirk (2012) Tune:  Book 1:  Vanishing Point  New York:  First Second

So this graphic novel is kind of like James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as  Young Man if Doug Adams of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy fame had done a major rewrite, and if James Joyce had been Korean-American instead of Irish.  That is to say, it is a wonderful book.

Andy Go drops out of art school, confident his superior skills will win him a job in no time.  After weeks of searching, Andy is broke and in imminent danger of being kicked out of his parents home for not having a job.  He is also desperate to impress Yumi, the girl he is in love with.  And so, when he answers a classified ad for a position with a good salary, benefits, and relatively low expectations, he is intrigued.  When he finds out his employers are aliens and they want him to be an exhibit in an extra-dimensional zoo he has second thoughts.  Find out what happens, read the book.

As usual, Kirk's command of the graphic novel format is impressive.  H knows how to handle panel transitions so well that it is easy to get lost in the story.  His drawing is clear and just a little on the cartoony side of things.  Andy is a very sympathetic character.  This would be a great book for late middle school and high school -- especially for students who tend to like combining science fiction and humor.

But there is a small snag for teachers who want to put this in their classroom library.  There is some vulgar language that could cause parental (and even student challenges).  This is too bad.  My suggestion would be that you get hold of the book, read it, and make your own decision. 

Monday, February 10, 2014

Top Ten Reasons to Read Daniel Pinkwater's _Bushman Lives!_

Pinkwater, Daniel  (2012)  Bushman Lives.  Boston:  Houghton Mifflin.

1.  It is always fun to spend time in Pinkwater's world.  It is the sort of world where there can be a house constructed solely of paint, and Chicago is a fascinating playground of amazing food and odd happenings (actually, that part is like our world.)

2.  It is sometimes nice to read a book where you really don't have to worry about keeping the plot straight.  This one is a bit like The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy -- you'll enjoy the book best if you do not know where you have been or where you are going. 

3.  It's got moments like this:  "I looked around for a hot dog stand.  Here is one of the great things about Chicago -- if you have between thirty-five cents and a half-dollar, you can get first-class nutrition practically anywhere.  There are hot dog stands all over, and the standard Chicago hot dog comes with everything you need to sustain life ... until the bright green pickle relish catches up with you and you die."  (p. 39)

4.  Like many Pinkwater books, this is a description of what, in an ideal world, Education would be like.  The main character, Harold Knishke discovers the world through a combination of inquiry learning, odd and quirky mentors, and wonderfully random encounters with miraculous beauty.  I wish Pinkwater were Secretary of Education.

5.  It's got Latin phrases in it and a lot of cool stuff about art.  You'll learn stuff.

6.  It is a fun and clever book.

7.  Another typical quote:  "These tattoos were on the captain's upper arms.  Down one side of his body were portraits of the five women he had been married to.  On the other side was a list of sandwiches he had especially enjoyed and the date on which he had eaten them."

8.  A stuffed gorilla that was a mainstay of the Field Museum is also a main character. 

9.  It has some good stuff to say about the meaning of life and potatoes and work and stuff.

10,  Pinkwater has a huge pile of other wonderful books -- so once you can get a quirky kid hooked on this stuff, you'll be able to recommend The Education of Robert Nifkin;  Alan Mendleson Boy form Mars; Young Adult Novel, The Hoboken Chicken Emergency; Lizard Music; and The Snarkout Boys and the Avacado of Death. 

11.  Not for the profoundly unsatisfying ending.  Sigh.  I don't know what Pinkwater was thinking.  We never even got to the island.

(and, in the interest of full warning, there are a couple of vulgarities in the book.  Nothing major, though.  Probably bet for sixth and up.)

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Divergent and Insurgent -- good stuff that will keep your voracious readers busy

Roth, Veronica  (2011) Divergent  New York:  HarperCollins

It took me a long time to pry this one away from my high school daughter.  She had to loan it to her friends, and in some cases, her friend's parents.  So by the time I finally read it, I wondered what all the fuss was about.

What Divergent  does really well is it crates a world and fills it with interesting people.  We have had enough dystopian fiction lately that my bar for quality in this subgenre is kind of high.  I really thought Divergent  was worth it.  I am not saying the world of Divergent is likely, or even plausible, but it is somehow believable, and in the midst of the non-stop action, there are times to think a bit about what this book has to say about our society -- as it gets drawn into tighter and tighter subgroups who do not communicate or event understand each other.

But you want to know what it is about.  Fair enough. 

Tris was born, like everyone in her world, into a Faction.  After the world collapsed (the books are set near and in the ruined city of Chicago), each faction blamed some aspect of the society before and focused on overcoming that aspect.  So Abnegation is a society built on selflessness; Dauntless, on bravery; Erudite on intelligence and scientific understanding; Amity on peaceful reconciliation and neutrality; and Candor on honesty.  Tris's family belongs to Abnegation, but when she is tested, she qualifies for more than one faction (thus she is Divergent) and on the day of her choosing ceremony, she leaves her family and joins Dauntless. 

And at that point, stuff takes off.  Tris must prove her worth in both sanctioned and unsanctioned combat, make friends, and in the midst of all this, she begins to suspect that things in her world are not as neat and stable as they seem.  when she and the guy she kind of likes discover a plot by one of the factions to take over, the book kicks into really high gear.

There is some vulgar language and some vaguely sexual situations, but they are not excessive.  High school students will not be phased much by it.  This would be good to loan to high schools students (male and female).  It would work really well for a motivated book club of high school kids too.  I have to say that I can't see using it in class. Thematically it is strong enough and there is plenty of interesting stuff to discuss, but at 487 pages for the first book, it might be a bit much.

Roth, Victoria  (2012) Insurgent  New York:  HarperCollins.

I am afraid I didn't like the second book in the series quite as much -- but that is okay.  I read it eagerly and enjoyed it a great deal. 
     I guess part of it is that we already know the world we are in -- but maybe it is also that this book suffers a bit from second-book-in-a-series syndrome.  It starts in he middle and ends in the middle.    Still, there is plenty going on here.  Tris and Four try to figure out what to do after the crisis at the end of the last book and at the same time struggle with their relationship and divided loyalties.  There is more fighting, excitement, intrigue, and surprises.  
     So really, my review doesn't matter.  Give Divergent to a student.  If they like it, give them Insurgent..  I haven't read the third one yet (and apparently there is something in it that makes my daughter and her friends very angry), but I would hand that one off to the student too.  Any books that weave such an interesting world are worth reading.