Patricia Reilly Giff is known for her historical fiction, and her most recent book is an excellent new addition to the genre. Gingersnap is set in New York during World War II (Wendy Lamb Books, $15.99). Jayna lives with her older brother Rob. After their parents’ accident, Rob took custody of his sister as soon as he turned 18. When he’s called to duty, the only person left to care for Jayna is the landlady. Whether inspired by ghosts, voices, or her own intuition — the reader is left to decide — Jayna leaves the landlady’s house, sets off, armed with her turtle, and follows the clues left in an old suitcase in Rob’s room. A recipe book written in French and an old photograph lead her to Gingersnap, a bakery in Brooklyn, and a woman that Jayna desperately hopes is her grandmother. Conveying the realities and hardships of life on the home front, Gingersnap, demonstrates that love and good food are two key ingredients in creating a family.
I’m not sure if Tom Leveen’s Party is even still readily available (Random House, $8.99), which is too bad because this book really impressed me. Each of the 11 chapters is narrated by one high school student, who is either going or perhaps avoiding going to an end of the year party. I’ve said this before, but I’m always a fan of these types of merry-go-round narrative books, when they are done well, and Leveen’s is. Reading various perspectives about the same events is a reminder of how differently we see the world, even when we’re standing right next to each other. Despite it’s seemingly innocuous theme, Party deals with a lot of complex issues: Islamaphobia, losing a parent to cancer, race, and depression. I definitely cried several times, especially in the first and last chapters. But don’t think that this book is all depressing either. There are a few funny moment, a bit of romance, and a reminder that best friends are always there for you, even if they haven’t been there lately. Furthermore, Leveen really magnifies the variety and multiplicity of teen voices. I’d love to see this book get more attention.
Today’s recommendation continues with The Lemonade War series. The Bell Bandit is a good chapter book for kids who appreciate mysteries (HMH, $15.99, paperback due in May 2013). The mystery within the book isn’t particularly exciting or adventurous, but as usual, Jessie approaches the question of the missing bell like the detectives she reads about. Kids who like mysteries will appreciate the recognizable tropes of the genre. The Bell Bandit takes Jessie and her brother Evan away from school and this story focuses more on the family dynamics. The kids and their mother always spend the winter holidays with their grandmother, but this year things are different. First, Grandma is in the hospital. Second, part of her house has been burned. The two are related. Grandma turned on the kettle and then forgot about it and went on a long walk. Grandma forgets a lot of things these days, including important things like Evan’s name or that he’s her grandson. She remembers the bell though, the one that sits on the hill near her house. According to tradition, the neighbors gather at the bell on New Year’s Eve. The oldest and the youngest people present at the festivities ring the bell together. When Jessie realizes that the bell is missing, she sets out to solve the crime and find the bandit with her new friend, Maxwell.
Stories that only teach are boring. Stories that only entertain feel like a waste of time. Davies’s books excellently mix engaging stories and life lessons. Her books teach by example rather than forcing the lesson. Maxwell is different. The reader knows that even though the text never says exactly why or how. Instead, the text describes his actions, his mannerisms, and the way he interacts (or doesn’t interact) with others. Jessie, who has never been very good at reading people, appreciates his matter-of-fact approach even though she gets frustrated with having to explain social conventions to him, the way her brother had to explain them to her. Davies is excellent at conveying both Maxwell’s and Jessie’s characters, without limiting either of them to labels and diagnosis. Some young readers will make the connection themselves, perhaps with Evan’s help, since he’s more of a nuanced reader of people than Jessie is. Other readers might not fully understand Maxwell’s character, and that’s a good thing, too. It means there will be opportunities for them to engage in conversations about varying abilities. Likewise, not all readers will fully comprehend what is happening with Grandma, as the words dementia and alzheimer’s are never used in the story. Even so, kids ages 9-11, who like realistic stories will feel for Evan as he struggles to communicate with her in the ways she can understand and the ones who want to know more will ask.
I discussed The Lemonade War in a recent post and was so taken with the book that I couldn’t wait to read the rest of the series. Although Jacqueline Davies’s books do comprise a series, each one is so different that I will continue to review them separately. They are all excellent in their own right and I’m impressed with how she has developed the books. At the end of The Lemonade War, Evan discovers that Jessie and Megan’s hard-earned money has been stolen from his shorts, while he was swimming at a friend’s house. In The Lemonade Crime (HMH, $6.99), when school starts a few days later, Scott Spenser, who had left the pool party rather abruptly, starts boasting about his new gaming center. Jessie and Evan know that Scott has to be the culprit and Jessie sets out to prove it by putting him on trial. She organizes the whole 4th grade class into witnesses, judge, jury, and audience. As the prosecutor, she represents Evan. Scott, the defense, declines to be represented by a girl — the only classmates left since most of the boys are witnesses from the party. The class conducts a secret, no-adults trial on the playground and Jessie, despite her extensive preparation, discovers that courtrooms can be emotional, no matter how hard you try to stay objective. What an excellent introduction to the justice system! And I particularly appreciated Megan’s desire to act as Scott’s public defender. Megan, Jessie, and Evan all eventually accept that in the judicial system not everything turns out the way you want it to, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t fair.
I know I’m getting in a bit of a rut with the age titles. It’s so much easier, but not as helpful when you’re looking for subject recommendations. My goal over the next couple of weeks is to go back and add subject references to the blog titles. For today, however, Planet Middle School by Nikki Grimes is good for a kid who enjoys sports and is on the cusp of adolescence (Bloomsbury, $15.99). Joylin plays basketball. Her younger brother Caden is an artist. I’m always a fan of books that push gender boundaries and show young readers that what it means to be a girl or boy isn’t as clear cut as some would have you believe. The kids’ dad has a difficult time with his non-athletic son, although he is rather supportive of his daughter’s talent, and both kids struggle to align themselves what the perceived norms of their respective gender. Caden tries to learn basketball to impress his father and Joylin tries wearing skirts, heels, and lipstick to impress a boy. She’s just as surprised at her newfound interest as anyone: “There are suddenly // cute boys everywhere. // I swear.// They keep popping up // all the time”. She’s never cared about clothes or giggling before and she’s not exactly sure what kind of girl she wants to be now. Caden basically embarrasses himself on the court and Joylin usually ends up literally falling all over herself in front of Santiago — not quite the impression she’s going for. Written in free verse, Joylin’s flowing narrative voice is pitch perfect. She navigates the highs and lows of early adolescence with her two best friends KeeLee and Jake and when she questions “Where is a parallel universe // when you need one?”, I had to smile. Ah, middle school. How many times did I have that thought, although never quite so poetic!
In The Lemonade War, by Jacqueline Davies (Sandpiper, $5.99), siblings Evan and Jessie usually get along. But when Jessie, younger by 14 months, skips third grade and winds up in Evan’s class, Evan needs a break from his little sister. The more he tries to get rid of her, the more she tries to prove that she’s not just a little kid. Misunderstandings pile up and soon the two are in an all-out battle to see who can make the most money selling lemonade during the final heat wave of the summer. The stakes are high, pride mostly, and in this war, it’s winner takes all. Evan has the people skills, the friends, and the gumption. Jessie has the math skills, the strategies, and the organization. Evan needs to not feel dumb next to his younger sister and Jessie needs to learn how to make friends and connect with people. This war might be exactly what both kids need to discover a little about business, step outside of their comfort zones, and learn not to take each other’s gifts for granted.
I think books have an infinite range of functions. I hate to be general to the point of uselessness, but they can entertain, teach, challenge firmly-rooted ideals, encourage self-reflection, open up new cultures and experiences. The list goes on. I think the best stories are ones that do several of these at once rather than just one. Stories that are pure entertainment are usually mindless to the point of embarrassment. Stories that are purely about instruction are boring and terrible to wade through. Even when I agree with the subject matter being taught, I hate books that are so focused on forcing the message that they don’t actually contain an interesting and engaging story. Christopher Paul Curtis’s The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963 (Random House, $6.99) is the perfect combination.
Kenny, aged 10, narrates the story of growing up in Flint, Michigan. He’s struggling to grow up, but is honest about his weaknesses. He can be naive, he isn’t always a good friend or a good brother, and, although he hates to admit it, he cries a lot. He’s also smart, observant, and rather witty: “It’s times like this when someone is talking to you like you are a grown-up that you have to be careful not to pick your nose or dig your drawers out of your butt”. Basically, he’s a 10 year old kid.
Kenny is an objective narrator. He provides just enough information about his family, his schoolmates, and his town to paint a vivid picture, but doesn’t over explain and ruin the chance for readers to figure things out for themselves. Class is an issue in this book, but Kenny never overtly labels any other character. Instead he notices what his classmates do or do not have, mentions kids forgetting their lunch, or lists the number of shirts and pants someone wears. It’s up to the reader to understand, for example, that Rufus’s family doesn’t have enough food to send school lunches, or the real reason Larry, the bully, steals Kenny’s gloves.
I like that. Writers such as Curtis clearly respect child readers, because they provide all the pieces, but let the readers put them together for themselves.
Although most of the first three-quarters of the book are humorous anecdotes about the “Weird Watsons”, the “go to Birmingham” part of the title hovered like a shadow and provoked not a small amount of anxiety. Also, the book is dedicated “In memory of Addie Mae Collins (born 4/18/49, died 9/15/63), Denise McNair (born 11/17/51, died 9/15/63), Carol Robertson (born 4/24/49, died 9/15/63), and Cynthia Wesley (born 4/30/49, died 9/15/63) the toll for one day in one city”. That anxiety proved not to be misplaced and there is a church bombing at the end of the book. I thought Curtis handled these final chapters extremely well. There is enough description to convey the horror of the bombings that occurred in Birmingham, but nothing in this book felt too much for a 9-12 to handle. Also, *spoiler alert* the scenes of Kenny’s post-trauma reactions were far more poignant and effective than having Joetta die would have been. Curtis follows up with an epilogue and in his discussion of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing on September 15, 1963, he rightly notes that, “Although these may be nothing more that names in a book to you now, you must remember that these children were just as precious to their families as Joetta was to the Watsons or as your brothers and sisters are to you”. The ache of worrying about Joetta, followed by the thrill of learning that she survived, makes the historical reality of Addie, Denise, Carol, and Cynthia’s deaths even more heartbreaking.
Both the novel and the epilogue end positively, but with a call to action. Overall the book is a reminder of all the best qualities of children’s literature. A great read for any day of the year.
R. J. Palacio’s Wonder (Knopf, $15.99) has been receiving excellent press since it was released in February of this year. It made the New York Times Notable Children’s Books list for 2012 as well as the Kirkus Reviews Best Children’s Books of the year. It’s also been flying off our shelves since summer and is on our store’s Picks of the Year so I figured it was finally time to read it.
August Pullman is starting 5th grade and for the first time in his life, he is going to school. Due to a statistically improbable genetic condition, he doesn’t look like anyone else: “I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse”. Auggie’s perceptions and ability to read people have become so acute over the years that — regardless of the severity of someone’s response — he always registers the exact moment that a person first sees him. Some people scream, some express quiet shock, and some only pause for one millionth of a second, but Auggie always knows. Fifth grade, as the principal of Beecher Middle School indicates, is the beginning of the transition from childhood to adulthood. His classmates reactions to him range from innocent curiosity to maliciousness.
While the narrative is primarily focalized through August’s perspective, Palacio gives the story more depth by incorporating other character’s interpretations. As perceptive as Auggie might be, he is young. He is so aware of people’s initial impressions that he often misses the changing over time as people get to know him. Hearing his friends’, his older sister’s, and some of her friends’ voices allows for more complex understanding of the full story. Shock doesn’t always mean fear. Sometimes people say things they don’t really believe. And first impressions fade into deeper understanding.
“my head swirls on this, but then softer thoughts soothe, like a flatted third on a major chord. no, no, it’s not all random, if it really was all random, the universe would abandon us completely. and the universe doesn’t. it takes care of its most fragile creations in ways we can’t see. . . . maybe it is a lottery, but the universe makes it all even out in the end. the universe takes care of all its birds.” ~ Justin, Wonder
Rick Riordan is starting to become a household name. His book, The Lightning Thief, was made into a movie and most of our customers are at least familiar with his books. Of his series for middle-grade readers, The Kane Chronicles are my favorite. The two primary characters, Sadie and Carter, are brother and sister, but Carter has grown up traveling with their father, and Sadie lives in London with their mother’s parents. They have met over the years, but don’t really know each other until the beginning of their adventures in The Red Pyramid (Hyperion Books, $9.99). They have such a quirky and genuine dynamic. They bicker and save each other and bicker while saving each other. I laughed out loud several times during their conversations. Unlike Riordan’s other series’, The Kane Chronicles focuses on Egyptian Mythology. Sure sure, he’s taking some artistic license in these books, but it’s obvious that he’s done a tremendous amount of research and I honestly felt like I was learning something new along the way. I thoroughly enjoyed the two strong female and male narrators and also really appreciated the subtle issue of growing up in a mixed-race family that occasionally surfaces in the narrative.
The series is currently in progress; the third volume, The Serpent’s Shadow, is in hardcover. Be careful, though! The covers of this series are almost indistinguishable from Riordan’s Lost Heroes of Olympus series, which is also in progress. Most readers will enjoy both series, but might be confused if they end up with the wrong book!