Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Violin Girl and Trumpet Boy Survive New York on their Own (and also fight an invisible criminal)

Clements, Andrew (2006) Things Hoped For.  New York:  Puffin

Look, anything Andrew Clements writes is good, but Things Hoped For stands out in my mind for several reasons.
     First, it is an extremely engaging story.  Gwen is in New York City to prepare to audition to study violin at some of the top violin schools.  She is staying with her beloved (but fairly solitary) grandfather.  Soon after arriving, she comes home to find a phone message from her grandfather, saying he will be gone for a while and that she should just carry on as it he is still around.  She does her best to focus on her auditions, even though her grand-uncle keeps visiting and making threats about selling the apartment, even though she has met a guy named Robert who is also in town to audition (in this case for trumpet) and even though they encounter a very mysterious and threatening figure.  And from that point, the book really picks up speed.
     Second, Clements is really good at balancing all sorts of tension.  As a reader I found myself often concerned for Gwen, but never to the point of desperation.  Some scenes were frightening, but not too frightening.  And the romantic tension between Gwen and Robert was perfect -- without resorting to old standbys of them suddenly hating each other/breaking up, or taking the relationship too far physically and having to deal with that.  This is just a real love story about two kids. 
     Third,  the ending was satisfying. 
     Fourth, although there are some huge connections between this book and the previous one in the series Things not Seen, it is not necessary to read either book to understand and enjoy the other. 
     And finally, Clements is really good worth words.  He paints beautiful pictures in your head. 
     Although the main character is a girl, I am guessing that confident male readers would like this one a lot too.  It is probably best for really strong fifth grade readers through high school or beyond.  I cannot imagine anyone challenging this book for any reason (though I have been surprised before).  It is a good one.  Go buy it!

Thursday, May 15, 2014

This Graphic Novel Spy Story Requires Some Decoding

Kindt, Matt  (2008) Super Spy Marietta, GA: Top Shelf  

This story, told in a graphic novel format, certainly bears rereading.  There is a bewildering array of characters and perspectives.  The story is told in a non-linear, non-chronological manner.  Some of the messages in it are in various codes.  Does it sound annoyingly difficult to make sense of?  I could see how you would think that, but the interconnected stories are remarkably engaging. 
What is it about?  Well, like much of Kindt's work, it involves interwoven stories, in this case involving spies and double agents on both sides of World War Two.  You will quickly find yourself rooting for the female agent who keeps requesting that she and her baby be pulled from the mission she is on, and the older man who hides messages for the allies in the children's books he is writing, or the agent, separated from his beloved, who uses the comic strip he writes for a regimental newspaper to propose to her -- in code.
The art is sometimes a little fuzzy, and honestly, the way Kindt draws faces doesn't always make it easy to distinguish one character from another.  So it is a lot of work to read these stories sometimes, but it is worth it if you like a good mystery.
A caution, though.  There is some intense violence here (in one scene, a man gouges another man's eye out) an some subtle references to prostitution and other adult situations, though it should be suitable for most high school readers.  

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The Quest to be Sumo

Pham, Thien (2012)  Sumo  New York:  First Second

Scott broke up with Gwen.  He then did the only logical thing for a young man to do after breaking up with someone he loved a great deal -- he moved to Japan to become a sumo wrestler. 
Maybe that sounds unrealistic to you.  Fine.  Then go read some other book. 
I found it delightful.  It reads kind of like a graphic novel version of a haiku.  It is fairly short, reads fast, and at the end you feel hopeful even though the conclusion of Scott's sumo training and indeed the conclusion of his relationship to Asami remain unclear.  The art is simple, but beautiful and the story is told in flashbacks in which different time periods are delineated by the color of the wash used to color each panel. 
I find this a hard book to get at with words.  You really need to read it.  The running theme seems to be that, if you break up with someone, it will hurt, but you will be okay.  When I read it, it makes me feel happy in a melancholy way.  I think this would be a good one for high school especially. 
I'll end the only way I can, with some images from the book.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

A superhero squirrel, a semi-sentient vacuum cleaner, and a plucky heroine. What more could you want in a book?

DiCamillo, Kate (2013) Flora and Ulysses  Somerville, MA:  Candlewick.

It starts like this:
     Flora Belle Buckman was in her room at her desk.  She was doing two things at once.  She was ignoring her mother and she was also reading a comic book entitles The Illuminated Adventures of the Amazing Incandesto.
     "Flora." her mother shouted, "what are you doing up there?"
     "I'm reading!" Flora shouted back.
     :Remember the contract!" her mother shouted.  "Do not forget the contract!"
     At the beginning of summer, in a moment of weakness, Flora had made the mistake of signing a contract that said she would "work to turn her face away from the idiotic high jinks of comics and toward the bright light of true literature."
     These were the exact words of the contract.  They were her mother's words. 
     Flora's mother was a writer.  She was divorced and she wrote romance novels.
     Talk about idiotic high jinks.
     Flora hated romance novels.
     In fact, she hated romance.
     "I hate romance," said Flora out loud to herself. 
     So Flora, the comic-book-loving girl cynic saves the life of a squirrel that had been sucked into her neighbor's vacuum cleaner and emerged with super powers.  Soon Flora is off on an adventure in which she discovers that her dad has a capacious heart, that young William Spiver is perhaps not as evil as she thought (and he is certainly not blind) and that even cynics can feel the love of a community (a rather quirky community to be sure, but just so) and can learn that it is okay be believe.
     I think a good fourth grade reader would catch most of the humor in this, (my fourth grade daughter did) but if you want to read this to your third graders (with explanantions of some parts), I am not going to stop you.  Older than fourth grade?  Sure.  I am 47 years old.  I loved it,

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

What if when you were in your nineties or older, you could take a drug and age backwards?

Haddix, Margaret Peterson (2002) Turnabout New York:  Aladdin

Amelia and Anny Beth are each nearly 100 years old and living in a rest home, nearing the end of their lives.  Two doctors present them and many other residents of the home with a medical option they don't understand and all of them receive a drug called PT-1 which begins a de-aging process.  Amelia and Anny Beth begin getting younger.  
       Imaging having almost two centuries to live instead of one.  (This is an interesting idea for me to think about.  I am 47 years old and have been battling Melanoma for the last 4 years.  I am not sure how easy it is for middle school students to wrap their minds around this).  
     The story mostly concerns what happens when the two of them de-age down to their mid-teens.  They are being stalked by a reporter and finding it harder and harder to get job or avoid CHild Services.  They are beginning to worry about who will take care of them when they get too young to take care of themselves. 
     The ending is satisfying.  The book explores a multitude of themes, like how trust and community weigh against independence, and some interesting parallels between caring for the very old and the very young. 
     It is a good book for middle school and high school.  .