Thursday, July 30, 2015

Jasper Dash is back! (and why that should matter to you)

Anderson, M.T. (2014) Pals in Peril:  He laughed with his other mouths  New York:  Beach lane Books

Opening lines: " The moon was not the only thing glowing in the sky that January night.  Other things soared over the white farms and forests.  Things watched the cold Earth carefully.  Things peered down at the hills and the little houses and the fir trees on the mountainsides.
     From a mile above, a car looks very much like a very tiny thing.  Just like a toy.
     Inside the car, there was a lot of noise.  The Delb family drove home from their skiing vacation.  Mom Delb drove.  Dad Delb slept,  And their two kids, Grady and Hopper fought int he backseat, slapping each other's heads. "

So begins the latest adventure featuring Jasper Dash, Boy Technonaut; and his friends Lily Gifelty and Katie Mulligan.  the main character, Jasper Dash,is the washed-up boy hero of a series of books from the '50s -- much like Tom Swift.  Katie is the hero of a series of junior high books called Horror Hollow (much like Goosebumps).  Lily is just a kid.

Anyway, in this book, Jasper, distraught after his latest invention, an atomic powered phone the size of a lunch cart, is not as novel of an idea as he had hoped, teleports himself into the heart of the Horsehead Nebula to look for his dad (long story) and is soon hoodwinked by a life form that he thinks might be his dad, but is in fact intent on taking over the Earth.  Only Lily and Katie can help (with the help of a very old 1950s copy of Jasper Dash and his Amazing Interplanetary Runabout; Jasper Dash and his Incredible Undersea Drill, or maybe Jasper Dash and his attractive Photon Sweater -- actually it is unclear what the title of the book was)

Sounds cheesy?  Sounds odd?  Sounds like the sort of thing that could only be appreciated by someone with a very strange sense of humor.  Fair enough.  Guilty as charged.  But look, this is really smart, really funny stuff.  If you got a kick out of Danel Pinkwater's The Snarkout Boys and the Avacado of Death, or Doug Adams's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy or movies like Monty Python and the Holy Grail or Buckaroo Banzai and his Adventures Across the Eighth Dimension -- well, then you ought to read this book and any other Jasper Dash book you can get your hands on (Jasper Dash and the Flame Pits of Delaware is my favorite -- partly because it includes a teenage monk who has just taken his vows of sarcasm.)

No worries that a parent would challenge this book.  Actually, the likelihood that a parent would even be able to understand it is fairly low.  The age of the reader is probably less important than his or her sense of humor, but I would guess that this book would work for fifth grade and up -- if the young reader has a sufficiently developed sense of humor (and a sufficiently underdeveloped sense of seriousness.)

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Time-Travelling Teen Teams with Adolescent Anglo Assassin from Ages Ago (by Artemis Fowl's Author)

Colfer, Eoin (2013) Warp:  The Reluctant Assassin.  New York:  Hyperion.

Opening Line:  "There were two smudges in the shadows between the grandfather clock and the velvet drapes.

17 year old Chevron Savano is an FBI agent.  She was recruited as part of a plan to use teenagers to investigate high school students being recruited into terrorist groups.  Because of a mistake she made, she is now babysitting something called a WARP pod in a beautiful house in London, and going stir crazy.  The head agent tells her "On most days a man probably won't come out of the WARP pod, so you don't have to do anything except study for your diploma.  But on the off chance that this very special man does emerge from that hatch wehn I am out, you need to keep him alive.  Just keep him alive and call me.  That's it."

Young Riley lives in London in 1898.  He doesn't remember his parents.  He is apprenticed to a man named Albert Garrick.  Garrick is teaching Riley to be an underworld assassin.  Riley doesn't want to kill anyone, but he knows his craft, and he is terrified of Garrick.  On the night when Riley is supposed to pass Garrick's final test for him and kill his first victim, something very strange happens before Riley makes an attempt.  The next thing Riley knows he is in a new London that he doesn't recognize with a man dying in front of him and a strange girl taking him into custody as a murderer. From that point, the story really picks up speed.

Like Colfer's wonderful Artemis Fowl books, this first book in the WARP series features both a strong male and female protagonist, a smart and diabolical enemy, and plenty of twists and turns that require the reader to be on her or his toes.   Fans of Fowl may like this book quite a lot.  So will young readers who like a book to be credibly scary, but turn out all right in the end.

There is nothing in this book that would cause it to be challenged, except maybe some violence and a truly frightening, amoral, and violent villain.  I still think Artemis Fowl might be a better series to start most readers on, but if they loved that one, they might like this one too.  And if they are inclined more toward realistic thrillers than fantasy, this might be an easier Colfer series to start them on. Although strong fourth and fifth grade readers could certainly handle the reading level on this one, it seems to me it might be more appropriate for middle school and up.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Two Wonderfully Imaginative Picture Books

Barnett, Mac; Klassen, Jon (2012) Extra Yarn New York:  HarperCollins

Opening Line:  "On a cold afternoon, in a cold little town, where everywhere you looked was either the white of snow of the black of soot from chimneys, Annabelle found a box filled with yarn of every color."

Annabelle loves to knit.  When she finds a box of yarn, she knits herself a sweater, then one for her dog, her friend Nate, Nate's dog, her entire class, including the teacher, her mom and dad, Mr and Mrs Pendleton, Dr. Palmer, dogs, cats, birds, and pretty much everyone and everything in town.  Her bottomless box of yarn is bringing color to the town and its inhabitants.  Then an archduke who is really into fancy clothing shows up, tries to buy the yarn for ten million dollars, and, when Annabelle refuses to sell, the archduke and his men steal the box and sail away over the sea.  There is a wonderful ending to the book as well.

Klaasen's art combines dark and dreary line drawings with remarkably textured yarn, which, although it is of subdued color, stands in strong contrast to the bleakness of the rest of the people and scenery.

This is an excellent and magical book.  It would make a splendid read-aloud book for pretty much any grade from K to 12.  The theme of the book is a little elusive, but seems to involve the power of imagination and creativity over acquisitiveness and greed.  But as soon as I write that sentence, it seems to kill the charm and wonderment of the book.  So actually, I take that sentence back.  Forget you ever read it.  just know that it is a good book with an excellent (if somewhat elusive) message.  Buy it.

Tan, Shaun  (2013) Rules of Summer.  New York:  Arthur A. Levine

Opening line:  This is what I learned last summer: never leave a red sock on the clothesline.

The thing I love most about Shaun Tan's work is the way he builds a believable world with profoundly unbelievable elements, which he then helps you believe in.  This ability was exemplified in his masterful picture book, The Arrival.  That book used his ability to depict alien elements in an everyday way to show how disconcerting the immigration experience can be.

This book is just fun.  Tan makes the most out of text lines which seem utterly mundane and images which are colossally imaginative.  For example, the text line "Never ruin a perfect plan"  goes with an image of what appear to be two armored, horned, and tailed guards carrying a huge strawberry past two other similarly clad guards.  Unfortunately, however, one of the guards with the strawberry has stepped on the tail of the guard walking ahead of him and that guard's tail has come off.  A closer look reveals that the guards with the giant strawberry and smaller than the other two guards,and that their armor seems to be held together with scotch tape.  The reader slowly realizes that the main character and his older brother are in the costumes and are trying to steal the strawberry from some kind of enchanted stronghold.

Like Chris Van Alsberg's excellent picture book, The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, each page reveals only a very interesting part of a story.  The reader is free to fill in the gaps as he or she pleases. On other pages, the unnamed main character plays a racket game with robots, stares in from outside his own house as a giant cat watches television with his brother, is imprisoned and rescued from an Antarctic fortress, and has other adventures.

Adults may have a hard time with this book, because they may not have the imagination to just enjoy it.  Little kids, however (maybe first grade and up?) who have a reasonable tolerance for silliness and a love for adventure will find it a delightful voyage of a book.  Get this one too, as soon as you can.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Travel to strange alien worlds -- one in Northern Minnesota in the 1840s and one in India in 1947,

One of the best things about reading is that you can completely immerse yourself into a culture that would take years for you to get to know in real life.  These two novels allow that immersion, and while there may be some culture shock, you and your students will get to experience some amazing places and people.

Master, Irfan (2012) A Beautiful Lie  Chicago:  Alfred Whitman.

Opening lines:  "Something was wrong."  I could sense it, but I couldn't put my finger on what it was.  It reminded me of when my father would jerk his heard this way and that, sniffing the air like an agitated rooster."

Bilal's father is dying.  At the same time, his country, India, is moving toward partition into two separate nations of India and Pakistan.  As the anger and tension in Bilal's town increases, Bilal makes a decision he will make sure that his father never learns of unrest.  All Bilal has to do is make sure no one visits his father and that his father does not see any newspapers.  But how can he do that while still going to school and managing the house.  That is where his firends come in.  Together they will keep the world away from Bilal's father.  But, of course, the world will change, whether they want it to or not.

Along the way, we meet the other members of Bilal's community, the caring teacher, the selfless older doctor, the pompous religious men, the blind man who somehow seems to see the world more completely than anyone else, and the boys (including Bilal's older brother) who seem to be waiting for the slightest chance to set fire to the world and burn it to the ground.

I found the ending of this book to be very moving, but you really need to read the epilogue as well. This book is probably ideal for middle school and high school readers, though, of course, sharp younger readers may wish to give it a shot. There is nothing here that would cause the book to be challenged, unless it would be the not-entirely-charitable portrayal of the town's religious men, or perhaps the violence of the riots.  But all those are overcome by the message of the book, that even in a time of change and violence, there is always hope, and more than that, love.

Erdrich, Louise (1999) The Birchbark House New York:  Scholastic.

Opening line:  "The only person left alive on the island was a baby girl."

Here begins the story of Omakayas, who lives with her family on the Island of the Golden-Breasted Woodpecker some time around 1947.  As she grows up, she must deal with her annoying younger brother, with her parents expectations of her, and with her father's long absences -- problems that sound familiar to 21st century Americans.  Omakayas must also learn to handle bears, diseases that the white men have brought that could wipe out their whole family, starvation, hard winters, and how to discover what she can contribute to her community.

Like many stories based on truth, the plot here is more episodic than sweeping, and the joy and mystery of the novel seems more contained in small moments than in dramatic battles, death-defying rescues, or startling revelations, yet those small moments, when Omakayas befriends a small bird, when the family moves to the summer rice camp, and when the winter ends or father returns home, or when Omakayas figures out what she is the best at.

There is a glossary in the back, but some of the vocabulary might prove frustrating for younger readers.  Having said that, I think fourth grade and up would enjoy this one.  I cannot imagine anyone objecting to this book, unless it would be someone who thinks that the white settlers are not praised for bringing the trappings of civilization as well as smallpox.  This might make a fine read aloud.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Good story...bad science fiction

Grant, Michael; Applegate, Katherine (2012) Eve and Adam. New York:  Feiwel and Friends,

Opening line:"I am thinking of an apple when the streetcar hits and my leg severs and my ribs crumble and my arm is no longer an arm but something unrecognizable, wet and red."

Science fiction is not necessarily about getting the science right.  It is about using science to explore possibilities.  But here is the thing, the author needs to frame the hypothetical parts of the story in such a way that the science gives the reader the chance to believe in the story.  At the same time, too much exposition about the science can get in the way of the characters and their stories.  It is a fine line to walk.  I get that.

And the story of Eve and Adam is an interesting one.  Evening Spicer is a girl who gets hurt in a horrible streetcar accident.  She goes to the hospital at first, but is quickly taken from there to the huge pharmacological research complex that her mother is the owner and CEO of.  There she begins her recovery and some odd things start happening.  First, she meets Solo Plissken, a teenaged boy who is kind of a gopher for the scientists.  He also lives in the complex and seems to be hiding something.  Eve finds him attractive (but that scares her -- she seems pretty timid about starting a relationship with a boy).  Then her mother gives her a project to concentrate on during her recovery.  It is a computer simulation that allows Eve to use the genetic code to design a human being.  She throws herself into the project and is almost so focused on it that she doesn't notice how quickly she is healing -- almost, but not quite.

From there the story gets really interesting.  Intrigue, revelations, subterfuge, danger, and, of course, a love triangle soon follow.  It is a good story, and honestly, probably fifty to sixty percent of the young readers of this book will find it quite enjoyable.  But any reader who has been exposed to good science teaching (or good science fiction) may find themselves getting stuck in places.  The science simply needs more scaffolding to let us believe in it.  It don't want to spoil the plot, so I will try to keep it general, but for example, how can genetic modification cause the body's healing processes to repair broken tissue faster than cells can divide?  How could you create a fully grown human clone in a matter of a few days? How is it that a high school student (admittedly a very bright one) can play around on a simulator for a few days and create an aesthetically perfect being?  How could you grow a clone in just a few days and imprint on that clone the English language and basic understanding of such depth that they could function on their own in a city without having any trouble?  Don't get me wrong, I am not saying that these things are impossible (especially in a world of fiction -- that is what is so great about fiction) just that the authors need to persuade the readers more that such things could be possible.

There is also some stereotyping of scientists here as nerds, as being physically uncoordinated and weak, and as being amoral -- and that bothered me (probably because I am a nerd).  And the conflict in the love triangle was resolved quicker than some readers would have wanted it to be (though I didn't mind that).

This book is probably best for high school, though certainly there are many middle school readers who would have no trouble understanding it.  There is some sexual innuendo, though nothing really explicit, and no actual sex.  The story does deal briefly with a character who is a drug dealer and is in trouble with the gangsters he lent money to, though his life is clearly shown as being horrible, but overall, there is not much here that a reasonable adult would object to.  The main protagonist is female, but chapters alternate with a male perspective.  I suspect it would not be too difficult to get males to read this one as well.

But as I said before:  This is a good enough book, it just isn't very good science fiction.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Another Adventurous Graphic Novel for Girls!

There has been quite an increase in graphic novels avialalbe for girls.  Some of them, like Smile by Raina Telgemeier and the recent Caldecott Medal winning This One Summer are realistic fiction stories concentrating on relationships and coming of age struggles.  But for girls who like some swordplay or monster-battling mixed in with the stuff of life, this new graphic novel is worth taking a look at.

Pope, Paul; Petty, JT; Rubin, David (2014) The Rise of Aurora West.  New York:  First Second

Opening Lines:
"...spaces described by a falling body related as the square of the interval..."
"Are you about done with that homework, Aurora?
"Just about."
"When you finish, suit up and meet me in the weapons room."

In the pages of Paul Pope's Battling Boy, we met Aurora West, daughter of Haggard West, science hero and monster hunter in Arcopolis.  In this prequil, Aurora is still learning the ropes of monster hunting from her father when a dying henchman scratches a symbol in the dust that looks familiar to Aurora.  Soon she is trying to figure out the link it has with her own past (and her late mother).  At the same time, the monsters in Arcopolis seem to be working together, as if they were being guided by a leader, and it is up to Aurora and her father to figure out what.

The art is well done and exciting (though it is in black and white), the characters are interesting (Aurora's supporting cast includes a housekeeper/fight trainer who is missing a leg, a boy from school who Aurora ropes into helping her, and and imaginary friend who may not be so imaginary -- or so friendly) , and the story is gripping (though confusing in a few places).  Nothing much here that would cause the book to be challenges (though Haggard West uses the word "hell" a couple of time, I doubt this book would even get a PG-13 rating.)

Fourth graders and up would do fine with this book -- provided they are familiar with graphic novels and adventure stories.  Anyone unfamiliar with either of those will have a hard time.   Adventure lovers will enjoy a really great ride.