Sunday, November 23, 2008

Masterpiece by Elise Broach

A boy, a beetle, and an art heist make for an entertaining read in this fast-paced mystery.

Marvin the beetle has a talent for painting, and he lives under 11-year-old James's kitchen sink. His family does not understand his need to interact with humans.

James lives in New York City and on a birthday trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Marvin's miniture drawing is discovered, and now Marvin and James are involved with helping to solve an art theft. But can James help the museum without his new beetle friend being discovered? And how long can he keep up the lie that he drew Marvin's marvelous painting?

I am not normally a fan of talking animal books. Watership Down? Never read it--bunnies talk. Redwall? Nope--warring mice. But I loved Masterpiece, it has a talking animal, well insect, but there are plenty of humans to keep me interested. You fear for their survival in the human world. This is a finely crafted emotional story. You feel for James as he struggles to please his parents, but who don't really see him until they think he has a newfound talent for art. You feel for Marvin, you is just a bit different in his passions than the other beetles, a little bit more adventurous, and who wants more than the average beetle life.

This book is a wonderful follow-up to Shakespeare's Secret. I look forward to more of Broach's offerings.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The Traitor's Gate by Avi

Fourteen-year-old John Huffam, the "last male in the Huffam line" is pulled out of school one day by his servant, only to be informed that his father is in debt of 300 pounds for gambling and is going to debtor's prison. His distraught mother and sister have no other means of supporting themselves and must live in prison with him until the money can be raised.

But is the debt real? And who is the mysterious inspector that keeps watching his father? And why does his great-aunt refuse to help his family but offers him a job?

With twists and turns, and a cast of characters that could have been transplanted straight from a Dickens' novel, Avi's Victorian-era mystery is a delight. Black and white illustrations decorate the story and characters. Descriptions of seedy undergound London are to be savored, the smells and sounds are sure to tickle any imagination.

John must seperate lies from the truth, and untangle the web of treason his father and others has created if he is ever to release his family from prison. But first he must learn that no one is to be trusted.

Monday, October 6, 2008

The Great Newbery Debate

Every January I am glued to my computer. I wait for the announcement. What titles will win this year? What did they decide? Will I agree? Will my picks be honored or ignored?

I must admit, many a time in the recent years the winners have left me scratching my head, and now I know I am not the only one.

In the October 2008 SLJ opinion article by Anita Silvey , many feathers were ruffled with her suggestion that the latest winners were not up to children’s' likability snuff. I quite agree. Maybe I am old fashioned, but I believe the Newbery Award and Honor books should stand for excellence in a book that will grab a child's imagination and get them to read. According to the Terms and Criteria of the Newbery Award, the award is given to a "distinguished" piece of work. One that is supposed to "consider excellence of presentation for a child audience". Plot, characters, and setting are all to be considered. Nowhere in the in the official terms and criteria did it say that they have to pick "a good book". And what a shame. This is what children ask for. The good books, the good stories.
The books that engage children to read, that have them coming back and asking for more. These are the books to celebrate. There are thousands of books published for children a year, why is the committee trying so hard to go out of their way to find books that children rebel against reading? The one that not only would they never pick up off of a shelf, but librarians and booksellers cannot honestly recommend because they are not likeable or sometimes readable books.

The honor books from the past several years have been better contenders for the winners. These are the books I can recommend, enjoy, and I think are deserving of a seal on the cover. They are distinguished, they are excellence, and they are good stories.

Feathers by Jacqueline Woodson

2008 Newbery Honor

"Hope is the thing with feathers/that perches in the soul" so says Emily Dickinson in a poem that is in the mind of sixth-grade Frannie, trying to figure things out in 1971 when a white boy enters her all-black school.

Feathers is a rare gem. When a new student, dubbed "Jesus Boy" brings with him a sense of calm and peace into a rowdy classroom, Frannie and her classmates begin to question if he really is Jesus and their own faith. Because, as her friend Samantha says, "If there was a world for Jesus to need to walk back into, wouldn't this one be it?"

Frannie questions all that surrounds her at school and at home as she watches her beloved older brother, who is hearing impaired, struggle to be accepted by the hearing world. And she watches her mother be full of hope and worry with her new pregnancy. Frannie feels the worry in her family surround her, but carries the poem in her heart while she searches for the thing with feathers.

When Trevor, the classroom bully, rages against Jesus Boy, truth is shone on both children. And Frannie asks herself, was he God's child? Aren't we all?

Woodson was smart to set this quick novel in 1971, during the rising tide of the Vietnam War, and the racial tension of desegregation. For the questions asked then still mirror the questions children growing up today ask themselves.

Monday, August 25, 2008

The Dead and the Gone by Susan Beth Pfeffer

I really enjoyed the companion book, Life as We Knew It, so when I saw there was going to be another book I was really excited. And I was suprised, The Dead and the Gone is darker, grimmer, and not for the faint of heart. When the moon is struck by a meteor, it is knocked off orbit and pushed so close to the earth, throwing the weather patterns out of wack, creating massive flooding, tsunamis, and earthquakes. New York is now an apocalyptic wasteland, no electricity, or heat in the winter, there are rats galore, people dying in the streets, food riots,"body shopping" (the robbing of corpses), and much more--all in the name of survival.

At the center of this madness is teenager Alex and his two young sisters, thoughtful Briana, and feisty Julie. Their parents are missing, and the siblings must decide to either wait and believe their parents are alive and come back for them, or imagine life on their own, in a deadly wasteland. And resources are getting low, the weather is changing, and their situation is getting worse.

I enjoyed the Morales family, what a contrast to Miranda's family in Life as We Knew It. It seemed Pfeffer wrote this companion in response to all the outcries of spirituality and morals that seemed so lacking in the first book. While you still need to suspend disbelief (seriously, couldn't the scientists predict something like this could happen?) Alex's situation was much more dire, and even with his faith, and the help of his church, there was no quick thinking mother to stockpile food and other items for him, he was on his own and he had two sisters depending on him. His courage was genuine, and you pray for him and his sister to triumph.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Before Green Gables by Budge Wilson

I must confess, I could never quite manage the series of the Anne books when I was a child. I would skip over the long passages where Anne would ramble on so. It shocked me that there was a character in literary history that could talk more than me. So I would skip to where there was action, and pictures. The copy that I had when I was 10(and still have) had color plates that helped move the story along. But when one entire page was one long monologue of Anne's dramatic speech about something describing the Haunted Wood, or the Lake of Shining Waters, I tended to skip it.

But that isn't to say that I didn't get the main point of the story, and that I didn't have a genuine love for the characters, because I did. So when PBS released the Kevin Sullivan production with Meagan Follows as Anne Shirley, I was in love with the books all over again, even though I knew the movie mixed them up, and cut them back drastically (Davie and Dora, where are you??). I even convinced my mom to take a family summer trip to P.E.I with her and my older brother (what a sport!) so I could see the Anne house, the red clay beaches, and all that my imagination had created while speed-reading the books and watching the movies. My trip did not disappoint. I loved it. And I hope future generations of Anne readers will get a chance to take this trip as well.

So now it is the 100 year anniversary and a writer has taken it upon herself to create Anne's world before Montgomery imagined it, using hints mentioned in the previous novels. This is no small feat, and Wilson has done a marvelous job. She has to please Anne fans and critics alike.

Remember, Anne's life before the Cuthbert's was not a happy one, she's an orphan, and Wilson does not shy away from the grim reality of being parentless during this time period. Despite baby Anne's horrid homelife, her exuberance shines through. She has an imagination that allows her to rise above the servitude she is forced to live and she survives within her own world. Wilson writes this without being too heavy handed, you cheer for Anne all the way through because you know how it is going to end.

Anne's journey to Green Gables is a wonderful read, not as amusing as the other books in the series because her transfers from horrible home to horrible home are so sad, but she meets many wonderful characters, mirroring the character journey in the other books. And these characters become her friends, and you know she has become important to them. This book is about her journey, her resilient spirit, and her search for a loving home.

Now if only it had color plates...

Friday, July 18, 2008

Miss Spitfire: reaching Helen Keller by Sarah Miller

I have had an obsession with Helen Keller and Laura Bridgman since I was a little girl. For those of you who don't know, Laura Bridgman was the pre-Helen Keller. She was famous before Helen Keller, was blind, deaf, and mute just like her from a very young age and acquired language as well. But she was not very pretty or even-tempered as she grew up, so she was not quite the showcase for the Perkins School, but she paved the way for the next generation of blind, deaf, and mute learners like Helen Keller.

Miss Spitfire is the story of Helen Keller from the beginning of Helen's education from her teacher, Annie Sullivan's point of view. Much like the famous movie, The Miracle Worker, it includes all the famous scenes with the doll, the locking in the room, the antics of learning to use a napkin in the dining room, and of course, the culminating scene by the water pump. But because this novel was researched using Annie Sullivan's letters, each chapter is started with an inspiring and insightful words from the letters. It is a wonderful fictional biography that has filled my obsession nicely.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks

No more Bunny Rabbit. Really. Parents should learn
that if they give their girls stupid nicknames, the girls are going to rebel. Can anyone say "Nobody puts Baby in a corner?"

Frankie experiences a revelation the summer before her sophomore year at Alabaster, a private boarding school that is as white as it's name. She no longer wants to be the innocent Bunny Rabbit her parents think she is, the invisible geek her classmates think she is, and foolishly underestimated by her new boyfriend.

So she evokes the mastermind of mischief that has laid dormant inside for so long. She infiltrates the all-boy secret society at her school, anonymously having them doing her biddings with hilarious pranks and high jinks.

But while she wanted to teach everyone at Alabaster a lesson, she learned a few herself, and what it means to be a true leader.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The Willoughbys by Lois Lowry

I love Lois Lowry, it's no secret. Many a time I have said I want to be just like her when I grow up. One of my greatest moments in life was when I got to give her a ride home from Vermont to Massachusetts in my little car. I think she wanted to sleep, but I, being the quiet, shy, silent type, would not let her sleep a wink as I peppered her with questions about the writing life.

However, lately her books have seemed a bit, well, grim, to me. Depressing even, that I have to ask who her intended audience is. I love her writing, I love her style, she is truly gifted, but I have been worried about my hero.

So enter The Willoughbys. Lowry knocked this one out of the park in every way. I loved the cover on sight, with its Edward Gorey-esque style, designed by Lowry herself. And I love the name of the family, bringing in Austen references of the foolish player from Sense and Sensibility. But what Lowry does best is treat her readers as smart thinkers, something often missed in children's books today. This book is a satire, it is not as what it appears; it is not simply the story of a family of abandoned children trying to off their parents any more than Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is about a kid going to a candy store.

The Willoughby children are four smart children born to the most unfortunate parents. Forced to endure the same names, share the same sweater, and dealing with general neglect, the children are not too heartbroken when their parents decide to take an extended vacation--with out the children. So the four Willoughby children declaire themselves orphans, much like their literary heros, Anne of Green Gables and Pollyanna. But, to their suprise, they must endure an odious nanny, an impending house sale, an auspicious neighbor, and many other adventures that will lead them with a most unexpected family.

An enjoyable read for the Lemony Snickett crowd.

Monday, July 7, 2008

A New Venture Begins

I have another blog where I discuss knitting and my knitted baby hats, but all the time people are asking me for reviews of children's books and what to read and more suggestions. So I thought, wouldn't it be smart to have one place where I could write reviews and have links to websites where I know others could find great reads for their kids, so voila!

The BiblioBecky is born.

Here you will find nuggets of info about children's, YA, and sometimes adult books, some suggestions from humble little me, and other great resources.