Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos

Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos 
(Farrar Straus Giroux, 2011

Summary from publisher:
Melding the entirely true and the wildly fictional, Dead End in Norvelt is a novel about an incredible two months for a kid named Jack Gantos, whose plans for vacation excitement are shot down when he is "grounded for life" by his feuding parents, and whose nose spews bad blood at every little shock he gets.  But plenty of excitement (and shocks) are coming Jack's way once his mother loans him out to help a feisty old neighbor with an unusual chore--typewriting obituaries filled with stories about the people who founded his utopian town.  As one obituary leads to another, Jack is launched on a strange adventure involving molten wax, Eleanor Roosevelt, twisted promises, a homemade airplane, Girl Scout cookies, a man on a trike, a dancing plague, voices from the past, Hells Angels...and possibly murder.

I bought this book shortly after it came out earlier this fall and just now got around to reading it.  I wish I had read it earlier!  I was completely enthralled (and often laughing out loud) by Gantos's quick-witted writing and fast-paced story.  I'm dying to know how much of this book is true and how much is made up. There's not a thing in this book that couldn't have happened, though for all of it to happen in one small town over the course of two months would be quite amazing.

Dead End In Norvelt is not just a fun read, it is also a look into post-World War II small town America.  As Jack works for Miss Volker and tries to stay out of his parents' arguments, he learns a few things about his town and himself.  Miss Volker teaches him not only about this history of Norvelt (named for Eleanor Roosevelt, the woman who helped to found the town), but also about the power of words and story.  I can't help but hope this story of Gantos writing obits for the small town newspaper helped him to become the writer he is today.  Jack also gets caught up in the mystery of why all of the old ladies of Norvelt are suddenly dying off, and eventually helps to find the answers to the question.

This book is definitely worth a read, both for teens and adults.  Each audience will take something different away from the book. I'm thinking it might make a great read aloud for my seventh grade classes.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Traitor's Smile by Patricia Elliot

The Traitor's Smile by Patricia Elliot 
(Holiday House, 2011)

Summary from publisher:
As the French Revolution rages around her, wealthy and beautiful aristocrat Eugenie de Boncoeur is no longer safe in her own country.  She flees the bloody streets of Paris for her cousin Hetta's house in England, narrowly escaping the clutches of the evil Pale Assassin, who is determined to make her his wife.  In England, Eugenie misses luxurious dresses and fancy parties, and she finds herself at odds with her fiercly political cousin.  But just as Eugenie is beginning to accept her new life, the vengeful Pale Assassin sends her a chilling ultimatum.  In a thrilling game of cat and mouse that takes Eugenie back to Paris in the grip of the Terror, she must remain one step ahead of him--for she is but one step away from the guillotine.

I have been fascinated with the French Revolution since I was in high school.  I've read numerous books (mostly fictional, but still) on the subject, and they are among my favorites.  When I picked up this book, though, I just wasn't jumping to read this one. I'm not sure if it was the cover of the book or the blurb on the book flap, but for some reason, this book just didn't speak to me.

But then I started reading.  I was quickly intrigued by Eugenie's story and her quest to flee the clutches of the Pale Assassin.  The story contained many twists and turns, and while parts of it were predictable, there were also many surprises.  One of the things I liked about this story is that it is one I hadn't read before.  Most of the books I've read about this time period have been about Marie Antoinette or members of her inner circle.  This one was about the daughter of a minor aristocrat and how the tentacles of the anti-aristocrat revolution touched her life in the most sinister of ways.

Girls who love an adventure story with a touch of romance (and gowns! corsets! horses!) will enjoy this fast-paced story.  While it is a sequel, it does a fine job of standing alone.  No need to seek out number one (unless you want to).

Monday, November 28, 2011

Born to Fly by Michael Ferrari

Born to Fly by Michael Ferrari (Delacorte, 2009)

Summary from publisher:
Ever since she can remember, eleven-year-old Bird McGill has dreamed of one thing:  becoming a P-40 fighter pilot.  The fact that she's a girl has never seemed to matter.  At least, not until the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor forces America into war and takes Bird's dad, the one person who believes in her, far away.  When a Japanese American boy named Kenji comes to school, everyone is sure he's a spy or a traitor.  But one night, after he saves her from drowning, Kenji and Bird accidentally discover a real spy in their town, one who's plotting something deadly.  No one believes their story, so Bird and her new friend are forced to try to stop the plot on their own.  Their adventure will shake their town, test their friendship, and, if they fail, change the future of the war--and the world.

This is one of the most enjoyable stories I've read recently.  I loved Bird's character, how she was determined to learn to fly a P-40, even though the expectations for girls at the time was that they would tend to hearth and home, not fly fighter jets.  When her dad goes off to war, Bird again follows her heart and befriends Kenji, a Japanese American boy who comes to live with his uncle.  As the story progresses, readers learn that Kenji's parents are in an interment camp in California.  Kenji and Bird set out to solve a mystery, and in the course of their investigations, manage to stir up the anti-Japanese feelings that have been festering in the town.

This book is a nice introduction for middle grade readers about life on the homefront during World War 2.  The mystery element keeps readers going and even has a few surprises along the way.  I did not know about the Japanese interment camps until I read Farewell to Manzanar in eighth grade.  Beyond that, it was not mentioned in my history textbook.  In the textbook used at my junior high, the camps get about three paragraphs in the whole chapter on the war.  I think it's important for kids to learn that groups of people were considered dangerous or even spies simply because of their ethnicity.  Born to Fly shows kids this, but without being heavy handed or preachy.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Zora and Me by Victoria Bond & T.R. Simon

Zora and Me by Victoria Bond & T.R. Simon (Candlewick, 2010)

Summary from publisher:
Just as stories guard the pictures of the selves and worlds we cherish the most, sometimes we have to defend our stories.
When a young man's body is found by the railroad tracks, the murder and its mysterious circumstances threaten the peace and security of a small Florida town, Zora believes she knows who killed Ivory, and she isn't afraid to tell anyone who'll listen.
Whether Zora is telling the truth or stretching it, she's a riveting storyteller.  Her latest tale is especially mesmerizing because it is so chillingly believable:  a murderous shape-shifting gator-man--half-man, half-gator--prowls the marshes nearby, aching to satisfy his hunger for souls and beautiful voices.  And Ivory's voice?  When Ivory sang, his voice was as warm as honey and twice as sweet.
Zora enlists her best friends, Carrie and Teddy, to help prove her theory.  In their search for the truth, they stumble unwittingly into an ugly web of envy and lies, deceit and betrayal.  Just as unexpectedly, the three friends become the key that unlocks the mystery and the unlikely saviors of Eatonville itself.

This is a sweet book about friendship and the power of story.  Carrie and Zora are nearly inseparable, and reminded me a bit of those powerful friendships I had as a fifth and sixth grader.  Both Carrie and Zora have difficult family lives, and they rely on each other to get through their problems.  Zora relies not only on Carrie, but also on her imagination to help her make sense of her world.

Zora and Me is a great introduction to the work of Zora Neale Hurston.  While they might not be ready for  Their Eyes Were Watching God after reading this book, when they do eventually encounter Eyes, kids who have read Zora and Me will have additional insights into the events that made her who she is.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Swindle by Gordon Korman

Swindle by Gordon Korman (Scholastic, 2008)

Summary from publisher:
Swindle:  to cheat, steal, trick, deceive, defraud, lie, rob, con, backstab, obtain dishonestly....
Griffin Bing is on his way to a million dollars...until a mean collector named S. Wendell Palomino (aka Swindle) tricks him out of a rare Babe Ruth baseball card. Now Griffin must put together a team of friends (and one or two enemies) to get it back.  There are many things standing in their way--a menacing guard dog, a high-tech security system, a very secret hiding place, and the fat that none of them can drive. But Griffin is a Man With A Plan, and even if some things go way beyond his control, he's not going to let his fortune go without a fight.

Gordon Korman has written some of my favorite books, including Schooled and Born to Rock, so I was looking forward to reading this one, too.  I knew the basic storyline before picking it up, so I was wondering if Griffin and his friends would succeed in their quest.  I wish I could say I liked Swindle as much as Schooled or Born to Rock, but I honestly can't.  I felt it was very predictable.

That being said, I can see how middle grade readers would feel this is a fun read.  Griffin and his friends are fun to root for, and Swindle is satisfying as a bad guy.  Enough obstacles are thrown into the kids' way to make their card heist attempts engaging and fun to read.  I'm going to keep this book in my classroom library, as I have students who are still trying to figure out which books are the right books for them, and Swindle might be the first rung on a mystery/adventure ladder that will lead them to more challenging, less predictable books.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Crossed by Ally Condie

If you haven't yet read Matched, the first book in the series, do NOT read on.  Really.  I mean it.  I can't talk about this book without giving away the ending of the first one!

Crossed by Ally Condie (Dutton, 2011)

Summary from publisher:
Rules are different outside the society.  
Chasing down an uncertain future, Cassia makes her way to the Outer Provinces in pursuit of Ky--taken by the Society to his sure death--only to find that he has escaped into the majestic, but treacherous, canyons.  On this wild frontier are glimmers of a different life and the enthralling promise of rebellion.  But even as Cassia sacrifices everything to reunite with Ky, ingenious surprises from Xander may change the game once again. 
Narrated from both Cassia's and Ky's points of view, this hotly anticipated sequel to Matched will take them both to the edge of Society, where nothing is as expected and crosses and double crosses make their path more twisted than ever.

I have been waiting for this book for nearly a year, since the day I finished reading Matched.  I was not disappointed.  Condie wrote this book full of twists and turns, and there were times when I wondered how the heck she was going to get Cassia and Ky out of their current predicament.  The only thing I don't like about this book is that now I have to wait another year to find out how Cassia and Ky's story ends!  Darn these trilogies!

I've read my fair share of dystopian books with a touch of romance, given the fact that dystopians seemed to take over for vampires over the past two years.  Some are definitely better than others.  My teen girls (and many of the boys) eat these things up.  I was at a bookstore event recently, and the bookseller quoted an author (can't remember who!  Sorry!) who said that today's young teens have always known our country to be at war, and that these dytopians ultimately have hopeful endings.  While the futures portrayed in these books may seem bleak to adults, to younger readers, they ultimately give a reason to hope for a better future.  I think that makes sense.  These books (at least the ones I've read) also tend to have strong female central characters (think Katniss in the Hunger Games trilogy), which I think helps to empower young teen girls.  These girls see that it's okay to be smart and strong and stand up for yourself.

If you haven't read Matched and continued to read despite the warning at the top of the page, go read these books, NOW.  You won't be sorry.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

This Thing Called the Future by J.L. Powers

This Thing Called the Future by J.L. Powers 
(Cinco Puntos Press, 2011)

Summary from publisher:
Khosi lives with her beloved grandmother Gogo, her little sister Zi, and her weekend mother in a matchbox house on the outskirts of Pietermaritzburg, South Africa.  In that shantytown, it seems like somebody is dying all the time.  Billboards everywhere warn of the disease of the day.  Gogo goes to a traditional healer when there is trouble, but Khosi's mother, who works in another city and who is wasting away before their eyes, refuses to go even to the doctor.  She is afraid and Khosi doesn't know what it is that makes the blood come up from her choking lungs.  Witchcraft?  A curse?  AIDS?  Can Khosi take her to the doctor?  Gogo asks.  No, says Mama, Khosi must stay in school.  Only education will save Khosi and Si from the poverty and ignorance of the old Zulu ways.  School, though, is not bad.  There is a boy her own age there, Little Man Ncobo, and she loves the color of his skin, so much darker than her own, and his blue-black lips, but he mocks her when a witch's curse, her mother's wasting sorrow, and a neighbor's accusations send her and Gogo scrambling off to the sangoma's hut in search of a healing potion.

I'll admit... I know next to nothing about life in South Africa.  I know that when I was in high school almost 25 years ago I read Cry The Beloved Country in my Modern World Lit course.  I remember nothing about it.  I came into this book with very little background knowledge and even fewer connections to help me stay interested in the story line.   I often found my attention wandering, and I had to work to understand what was going on.  I found myself most interested in the sections where Khosi was talking about the witch who cursed her family.

So much about this book made me sad, the biggest thing being I know that much of what is depicted here is true.  Khosi may be a fictional character, but there are many real girls out there who are just like her; torn between modern life and traditional ways, worried about their futures and their families, wondering what life has in store for them. Khosi lives in abject poverty; her family barely keep their heads above water with Gogo's pension and her mother's salary.  In addition to worrying about her family's finances, Khosi also must deal with unwanted attention from the older men in her village who are eager to form relationships with virgins, girls who they are fairly certain are not HIVpositive. When I read books such as this one, I wonder how our world has ended up the way it has.

As an adult, I found much to consider and think about as I read this book.  I wonder, though, how many young teens would stick with this story and how much they would understand about the lives of these people.  I could see using this book in a high school class, one where other literature about South Africa was used as a scaffold for understanding.  This is definitely a book for older readers.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead 
(Wendy Lamb, 2009)

Summary from publisher:
By sixth grade, Miranda and her best friend, Sal, know how to navigate their New York City neighborhood.  They know where it's safe to go, like the local grocery story, and they know who to avoid.  Like the crazy guy on the corner. 
 But things start to unravel.  Sal gets punched by a kid on the street for no reason, and he shuts Miranda out of his life.  The apartment key that Miranda's mom keeps hidden for emergencies is stolen.  And then a mysterious note arrives, scrawled on a tiny slip of paper:
I am coming to save your friend's life, and my own.
I ask two favors.  First, you must write me a letter.
The notes keep coming, and Miranda slowly realizes that whoever is leaving them knows things no one should know.  Each message brings her closer to believing that only she can prevent a tragic death. Until the final note makes her think she's too late.

I first picked this book up after it won the Newberry Medal.  At that point, I just didn't connect to it and quickly abandoned it.  I decided to pick it up again, since so many of my students mentioned it as one of their "landmark texts."  This time, I really enjoyed the story.  I'm not sure what I didn't like the last time, but Miranda's story really resonated this time.

Miranda is a likable girl who is dealing with problems most middle schoolers face (and a few that most don't).  I could relate to her life as a latchkey kid in the late seventies, since I was one of those, too (but in a small, southern Illinois town rather than NYC).  I also remember well the confusion of shifting middle school friendships and becoming fascinated with the work of Madeline L'Engle in about seventh grade.  I can see why my middle school readers love this book.

While the book has a fantastical element (time travel), it really is a realistic fiction novel about growing up, and a good one at that.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

I'll Be Watching by Pamela Porter

I'll Be Watching by Pamela Porter
 (Groundwood, 2011)

Summary from publisher:
In a small prairie town like Argue, Saskatchewan, everyone knows everyone else's business.  Everyone knows that the Loney family has been barely hanging on--the father, George, usually buttered up with rye whiskey at Elmer Spanner's bar since losing his farm and his wife, Margaret.  That the four Loney children--Ran, Nora, Jim, and Addie--do not get along with George's second wife, the pious, bitter Effie. And when things go from bad to worse, and the children are truly left to fend for themselves, most of their neighbors seem to be willing to look the other way.  Yet the young Loneys are not easily beaten down, and they somehow find a way, with the help of some unexpected allies, including a couple of very watchful ghosts.

This quiet freeverse novel surprised me.  At first, I wasn't sure if I would like it, but as I got farther into the story of Nora Loney and her siblings (along with a few other kids in the town), I found myself really rooting for this strong, plucky character.  Nora is left in charge of her siblings after her father dies and her stepmother skips town with a Bible salesman.  Her older brother Ran works for the railroad, so he's not around to help.  I'm not sure I would have been able to do the things Nora did with so little money and very little help from the neighbors.

I was SO ANGRY at the people of Argue.  Many of them held themselves up as examples of Christian goodness, yet turned their backs on these children who needed help, through no fault of their own.  The postmistress of the town actually stoops so low as to take the money Ran sends home from his military paycheck and uses it to buy dresses and a new stove.  When someone did stick up for the Loney children, I cheered in my head.

I'm not sure how this book would appeal to kids, though.  There's not much action in this book, and keeping track of all of the characters can be tricky at first.  Girls who like stories about families, and who are strong readers would probably enjoy this book.