Juvenile Literature Reviews, Fall 2012

Posted on November 26, 2012 by

The committee of volunteers discussed these reviews in September.

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BookSpeak! Poems about Books written by Laura Purdie Salas illustrations by Josee Bisaillon
BookSpeak!, a collection of poems about books, is one of those books which defy category. The design is delightful, with entertaining, expressive collage illustrations by Josee Bisaillon, and the poems are accomplished. But who is it for? Laura Purdie Salas’ poems are likely to appeal more to teachers and librarians than to children. Several have a layer of sophistication more appropriate to older readers, but the book’s design is likely to call to younger readers. For example, a poem entitled “Conflicted” is about the necessity of conflict to plot. Hardly subject matter to entertain the average picture book audience. This seems like a volume meant to be used in an instructional curriculum rather than for entertainment.

A Boy and a Bear in a Boat written and illustrated by Dave Shelton jacket cover
A boy asks a bear in a boat called Harriet to take him “over to the other side.” The bear says “It will take a little while.” Thus begins a tale of “unforeseeable anomalies” which become a wonderful story. The writing is deceptively brilliant. The illustrations are so much a part of the story that the tale couldn’t be told without them. I felt I was reading a version of Waiting for Godot writing by A.A. Milne. This book looks like a children’s book but it is so much more.
Find this at the Downtown Public Library and Mendenhall Valley Public Library in New Juvenile Books

Castle of Shadows written by Ellen Renner illustrations by Wilson Swain

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If the opening of Castle of Shadows is somewhat more self-consciously literary than this middle-grade fiction novel requires readers should not be deterred. The pacing quickly picks up once descriptions of castle and characters are disposed of and the lively adventure gets underway. Charlie, the rightful princess, is treated as a scullery wench when her mother disappears and her king father drifts into a fog of despair in with he basically abdicates all responsibility for both her and the kingdom. But there are a few loyal friends in the castle and with their help, Charlie is transformed into a leader, using the wits she’s developed as an underfed, mistreated and abandoned child of the castle combined with the new veneer of royal authority she develops as an intended pawn of the prime minister. Although reluctant to trust, Charlie finds herself allied with the young gardener’s assistant and they risk their lives to try to find her mother and save the kingdom.

Charlie struggles with who is worthy of trust and who is not, making mistakes with dramatic consequences. Indeed, each escape is followed by another near catastrophe, as the book gallops from crisis to crisis. Issues of trust and betrayal are well and appropriately handled for this age group. The story manages to touch on questions of poverty, power and privilege without being pedantic. Charlie is shown both as a tough, sometimes stubborn and rude child on the one hand, and a girl who is aching for her disappeared mother and emotionally absent father on the other hand—someone young people will find sympathetic. Part mystery, part adventure, Castle of Shadows has echoes of The Golden Compass with a tougher, almost contemporary flavor. A winning debut from Ellen Renner.

City Chickens written by Christine Heppermann
jacket coverChickens as pets and shelter guests in Minneapolis are the subject of this photo-filled nonfiction book that is visually quite appealing. The subject matter is for older children (after all, the reason Chicken Run Rescue exists is because animals are at risk of injury and neglect). The author notes that despite starting with an impartial view, she and her family ended up adopting a chicken from the shelter. The book opens with wonderful descriptions of the shelter and continues with stories of rescues and adoptions. In keeping with the desire to protect and nurture chickens, the book includes “How to Care for Pet Chickens” and “Alternatives to School Hatching Projects.”

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Every day written by David Levithan
Every day of A’s sixteen years he wakes up in a different body but the day A is Justin, he falls in love with Rhianon, Justin’s girlfriend. Every day after that he visits her; sometimes as a girl, sometimes a boy, sometimes as a locked up crazy, sometimes as a handsome soccer player. Trouble comes when he leaves the body of Nathan, a quiet, devout boy, in his car by the side of the road. Nathan knows “somebody else” had inhabited him. He talks to the police, the news people, and a preacher who really wants to meet A. Reverend Poole hints that there is a way A can stay in a body which eventually leads to a somewhat satisfactory ending.
What an amazing book! The author knows teenagers of all kinds and does a perfect job of putting A into each life. This book has been reviewed favorably in Entertainment Weekly as well as all the usual places. Because of the author’s popularity with teens, I feel sure that this story will be read.

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Fighting for Dontae written by Mike Castan

Javier is starting seventh grade with trepidation. He can recognize the grimness of life in a poor neighborhood, with unreliable parents, missing friends, drive-by shootings and gang violence. He is on the margins of criminal activity himself, even as he chases popularity in middle school. The book traces his learning as he meets a teacher who sees his love of reading as a strength to build on and offers him a service learning assignment that widens his horizons.

It’s a nice story set in a modern culture of despair. The grittiness does not overwhelm Javier’s empathy, just as the prison sentences and drug abuse have not quenched his father’s dreams of happiness. The boy’s sense that “I’d never been good at anything” is replaced with “I was glad I was who I was.” The author is unflinching in describing life in the ‘hood and in the classroom. This is a book for grades 6-8 with intriguing literary references (Islands in the Stream and So Bigare among the books he reads).

photo of VespaFlirting in Italian written by Lauren Henderson

A bit of romance, new friendships, adventure in Italy, even a mysterious murder attempt—it’s all here. Unfortunately so is a huge emphasis on body image and being attractive to boys. Sure teenage girls think about those things—likely more than might be best for them—which is why this reader would have preferred that these girls find their identities through other paths. However, the story is engaging and it fun to be in Italy!

Violet travels from England for the summer program after she discovers a portrait of a young woman who could be her twin but who lived in an Italian castle in the late 1700’s. Eager to be away from her mother but also feeling there must be a connection to the girl in the portrait, Violet easily convinces her wealthy family to send her to the summer program in Tuscany.

Because this book is the first in a series we never learn the facts about this mysterious connection and Henderson drops us off at a point where we itch to keep reading. Though not perfect, the book is entertaining and would be a good summer read for girls yearning for romance and excitement.

The Gathering Storm vol 1 of the Katrina Trilogywritten by Robin Bridgesjacket cover

The Katrina Trilogy Is a reimaging of Russia circa 1888 in which everyone is either a vampire or has some power—some nasty, some not so nasty. Katerina Alexandrovna, Duchess of Oldenburg knows she is able to raise the dead. She has done it almost accidentally with a moth and a frog but she is not exactly sure how it happened. Katiya becomes aware of both dark and light magic among many members of the aristocracy, especially the members of the royal family.

Although she is courted by the beautiful Danillo, prince of Montenegro, she is strangely drawn to George Alexandrovich, the tsar’s middle son. Prince Danillo’s sisters reside at the same boarding school as Katiya. She observes Elena—the youngest—putting something in her cousin Dariya’s food. Shortly afterward Dariya almost dies of poison.

When the charming Prince Danillo proposes, her mother insists she accept even though she suspects he and his family should be avoided. He insists that Katiya must come to Montenegro for his eighteenth birthday where her blood is used to bring Prince Danillo into his powers. Katiya realizes she must learn more about her own powers. This book will attract a group of readers who are becoming fascinated with “powers” and love series.

Find this at Douglas Public Library in New Books.

book jacketA Girl Named Digit written by Annabel Monaghan

This breezy spy thriller is a hoot! Our heroine is a seventeen year old who has survived high school by hiding out. When her gift for seeing patterns leads her to visit the FBI with a warning about terrorism, unexpected action starts. She is ‘kidnapped’ to protect her and give the FBI the use of her skills. The agent assigned is young and handsome and wildly gifted in languages. The clues are difficult to unravel and some of the players are not exactly who they seem to be.

These young people are courageous and surrounded by great parents. The story is an adventure in which Digit finds “as if for the first time, I was fully engaged in life.” Her struggle to be sociable and still honor her own self is well detailed. A minor complaint is that the author justifies decisions about energy conservation with the flip comment, “as guilty as anyone.” The plot is wild, the romance tame and the book a good one.

Grave Mercy written by Robin La Fevers cover

Abused Ismae finds a home at the convent of St. Mortain where she learns that their god of Death has granted her unusual Gifts. If she stays at the convent she will be trained as an assassin. On her first assignment at the Court of Brittany she meets Gavriel Duval, the bastard brother of the young Duchess of Brittany. Ismai agrees to pose as his mistress even though she knows nothing about being a mistress. They become involved in the process of acquiring an appropriate suitor for the Duchess. When the Duke of Nemours is found dead, Duval thinks Ismai has killed him because he was Duval’s choice for the Duchess. Count d’Albert is the remaining choice but he has threatened war if he is not chosen. Ismae knows d’Albert is cruel and abusive and definitely not the best suitor for the duchess.

The author does an excellent job of revealing the personality and character of all the people involved in the story so that I cared what happened to them. I cheered for the guy everyone said was bad but was really good. I worried for Ismae when she seemed to make bad choices. This might make the reader to look forward to a book due to come in the spring of 2013 which will be about some of the minor characters the reader has met in this book.

Find this at the Downtown Public Library and Mendenhall Valley Public Library as YA Book.

painting of dog teams and mushers near ice hillsIce Island written by Sherry Shahan

This adventure story, set is Alaska, has a female dog musher as the heroine. Good attention is paid to the caring for dogs and learning to survive in the cold. Tatum (age 13) has devoted time and effort to learning about mushing. Her week on Santa Ysabel Island (thinly disguised St. Lawrence Island) provides her with the opportunity to use her knowledge in the real world. After some realistically stupid decisions by young teens, Tatum and Cole who is a barely older musher from the island, confront an ordeal with deep cold, broken ice, and hungry dogs. The struggle is severe, but by trusting the dogs, they make it to town safely.

This is an adventure book with many accurate details. One can wish that an editor had caught one sentence describing racing mushers: “Fishermen, lawyers, doctors, teachers, miners, artists, and natives had all taken time away from regular jobs to race.” The categories are not exclusive. There is an unfortunate inference that ‘native’ is a regular job.

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Island of Thieves written by Josh Lacey

After accidentally burning down the family garden shed on the first day of summer break, young Tom Trelawney is whisked away to his New York uncle, the only adult willing to watch him while his parents vacation. Uncle Harvey turns out to be a bit of a shady character. He and Tom are soon embroiled in a South American adventure, chased by murderous bad guys on a quest to find the ancient treasure reputedly buried on the mysterious Island of Thieves.

The story, a sort of mash-up of Indiana Jones, James Bond, and Treasure Island, seems custom-made to appeal to young, probably male reluctant readers between the ages of 9-12. Not so much to me. While I can willingly suspend disbelief as well as the next person and can enjoy doing so in the face of outlandish plot twists, one-dimensional characters, and a foregone conclusion, I expect a good deal of wit or charm or stomach-churning action in exchange. This title did not supply enough of any of those to suit me. No larger than life bad guys, no cool gadgets (or at least the inspired use of everyday objects for narrow escapes) and definitely, definitely no witty repartee. The action seems formulaic, the criminals just generic thugs and Uncle Harvey honestly seems kind of simple.

The best thing in the novel is the historical thread concerning John Drake, young cousin to Sir Frances who sailed with him and kept the ship’s log. Later he commanded his own ship, sailed to South America where he was imprisoned and most likely killed by the Spanish Inquisition. I can’t help wishing that Lacey had written a factual or fictionalized account to those voyages instead of this adequate but somewhat tepid addition to the long canon of buried treasure adventures yarns.

Find this at the Mendenhall Valley Public Library in New Books.

Kissing Shakespeare written by Pamela Mingle book cover

Miranda plays Katherine – the lead – in the high school production of Taming of the Shrew. She was chosen for this role partly because her mother is famous for playing it. Instead of going to the cast party after opening night, she goes back in time with Stephen Langford – one of the actors in her play – to the time before Shakespeare was famous – before he had even written a play.

Stephen, who is a time traveler, is afraid that Shakespeare is about to become a priest and will never write his plays. So he wants Miranda to seduce Shakespeare which Stephen thinks will prevent this (a corny supposition which he believes because, as we learn later, he has a crush on her). Miranda’s relations with Will is more that of a wise friend. Her romance with Stephen proceeds nicely, enough so that when she has to return to her own time it is heart breaking. Her experience during the 16th century England has made her a much more assured actor – enough to impress her mother.

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Nikki & Deja: Wedding Drama written by Karen English illustrated by Laura Freeman

This is a realistic chapter book for young readers. The two girls are in third grade and best friends and, yes, this is one of a series of books. The text is told in the third person, alternating focus by chapter between the two girls. The story involves little in the way of a technological devices or adult intervention. The drama is among classmates. Their teacher is getting married and the heroines are invited guests. The girls in the class devise a contest to plan the wedding. There are strains to the friendship, a wonderfully realistic baking disaster (because of unwarranted confidence), and in the end kindness and consideration displayed. This is a book for independent reading and rests securely in mainstream culture with focus on the wedding day.

Racing the Moon  written by Alan Armstrong book cover

It’s 1947. Eleven year old Alex and her “brother” Chuck meet Wernher von Braun and sneak into watch a top secret rocket launch. Alan Armstrong includes so many plot elements he doesn’t have space to develop them to my satisfaction. Chuck is not Alex’s biological brother but we don’t know anything else about him except he is 17, can’t read but is obviously a genius. Her mother has heart pills and can speak German. Her brother John is very smart and tutors Alex. Her father encourages Alex’s space excitement. Her friend Capt Ebbs who works with the space program is a descendant of Captain John Smith. Much of the book quotes from the diary of John Smith. These are all wonderful elements for a great book but none are developed or explained.

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Water Balloon written by Audrey Vernick

Picture book author Audrey Vernick’s first novel deals with the not uncommon experience of middle school age girls developing at different rates, when part of a group aspires to a more seemingly mature, less childlike, style and another—like the protagonist of Water Balloon—wants things to be the way they always were; the same jokes, the same styles. Early in this contemporary novel, Marley explodes her water balloons—an old favorite trick of hers and her two best friends—at an outdoor party with older, hipper kids, and shows herself to be “just a kid.” As her friends hang out with new kids, Marley ends up spending the summer with her Dad, recently split up from her mother. He has arranged a summer babysitting job for her.

The story is well told, with fairly standard elements for his age group and genre: and attractive boy, the lesson about being oneself, a meditation on what it is to be a friend, learning to accept parents’ failings and humanness, recognizing grace when it appears. At times the lessons are a little heavy-handed and the telling is drawn out. This 310 page book could probably have benefited from being a somewhat slimmer volume. But despite those flows and the fairly predictable storyline, there is comfort in a story like this in which important lessons come from quiet little dramas rather than wild, bigger-than-life calamities. It’s easy to believe Marley and the people in her life are real and that there is hope that growing up won’t all be painful. Surely there’s merit in a well-told story that offers such assurance.

Zapato Power: Freddie Ramos Makes a Splash written by Jacqueline Jules illustrated by Miquel Benitez cartoon of boy jumping into swimming pool

I picked this up because I was curious about the young hero. The part I liked the best is the use of graphic art to illustrate his superpower. This is a book I would give to most second or third graders. The adults are kind, Freddie is brave, and the bully gets her comeuppance. The obstacles are realistic. This would be a good book for a small group to read independently.

Zero written by Tom Leveen book cover

I enjoyed Zero much more than Leveen’s first book, Party. While Party felt a bit contrived and plot driven, Zero feels true, engaging, and touching. Her nickname Zero gives the reader immediate insight to Amanda, a 17 year old just looking for a fun summer after a devastating finish to her senior year. The summer turns into a quest to find herself. By the end she finds confidence in herself as an artist, a daughter, and even a desirable girlfriend. The discoveries come at a high cost which makes the book ring true.

The punk music scene combined with art classes, coffee shops, and the landscape of Phoenix appear nearly as characters which sweep the story along. Amanda and Mike – punk rocker about to make it big – are beautifully drawn with vulnerabilities, anger and dreams that all seem unquestionably real. This is a quick read but one that stays with the reader, settling in the heart