Middler Books and More

This blog contains Bruce DuBoff's book reviews, info on other media, and related topics. It is a collaboration between the librarian and both the students of Pennsauken Intermediate School and Phifer Middle School in Pennsauken, NJ, and the general middler book reading community. The books featured here are appropriate for grades 5-8, though not all books reviewed here are appropriate for all of those ages.

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Location: Pennsauken, New Jersey, United States

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Video Review of Gold Medal Summer

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Northrop, Michael. Plunked. Scholastic, 2012. 247 pages. ISBN 13: 978-0-545-29714-1. This book is appropriate for grades 4 to 7, or ages 8 to 12, depending on reading level and interests (3 stars out of 4).

I make no apologies for liking baseball and baseball books. Just as I subscribed to Baseball Digest as a kid, now (as an older kid) I like to read about the National Pastime as soon as I hear that pitchers and catchers have reported to their Florida and Arizona residences. Fortunately, publishers know there are other folks like me out there and they always accommodate us with new baseball fiction. The one I chose this year, Plunked by Michael Northrop, did not disappoint. The former Sports Illustrated for Kids writer produced a well-constructed retelling of one of the oldest tales in our collective history: the overcoming of The Fear. Every epic/tragic hero, from Gilgamesh and Enkidu to Moses to Achilles and Hector to Sir Gawain to Hamlet to Luke Skywalker and Winston Smith, has had to face his/her darkest fear to move to the next plane of existence. For some, that plane represents religious freedom, liberation of the soul, the chivalric code, revenge for murder most foul, submission to a higher positive power (the Force) or a higher negative power (Big Brother). Protagonist Jack Mogens’ mission is simpler: he simply wants to make his local Little League team before he gets killed.
Sixth grade has been reasonably kind to Jack Mogens so far. He is at the top of the food chain as an upperclassman at Tall Pines Elementary, he has a secure spot among the jocks in the lunchroom, and he has a pretty good shot at starting in left field for the Braves, the local little league majors team. Jack’s biggest problem is thinking of something clever and witty to say to the Braves’ cute shortstop, Katie Bowe. But the team’s bully, also son of one of the coaches, knocks Jack down in practice, starting a chain of events that could have tragic consequences: “The pitch cuts in toward me, chest high. It’s one of those pitches where you can just tell right away that you’re in trouble. The ball just seems to follow you” (47). Trouble seems to follow Jack after that incident, and after an even bigger episode in a real game, fear and malaise creep into his psyche. The doubts that every competitor must overcome plague Jack: Does he have the courage to face his fears? Can he perform under pressure? Can he shrug off his Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and come back stronger than ever? Can he finally not get nervous when Katie Bowe walks into the room? Jack must confront his deepest fears, not lie (too much) to his parents about his situation, find a way to return to left field, and save face with his friends.
I remember what it was like to feel the excitement of baseball season: to collect, trade, and flip baseball cards, to play in little league, to listen to games on a transistor radio, and frankly, to be afraid of the ball. Plunked by Michael Northrop captures the tweener baseball experience with verisimilitude and humor, and I must confess that three students have seen me smiling while reading it and they all want it as soon as I am done. Some of the characters were underdeveloped, particularly the parents; e.g. Mr. Northrop points out two situations in which Dad drinks too much but there is no follow-up, consequence, or effect. However, Jack’s passion for baseball and his obsession with starting in left field are unmistakable and charming, and Plunked by Michael Northrop will make a fine addition to your sports fiction collection.

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Grisham, John. Theodore Boone, Kid Lawyer: The Abduction. Dutton Children’s Books, 2011. 217 pages. ISBN 13: 978-0-525-42557-1. This book is appropriate for grades 4 and up, or ages 9 and older, depending on reading level and interests (2 1/2 stars out of 4).

I still remember my excitement while I read The Firm by the once ubiquitous legal thriller author extraordinaire, John Grisham. I was working at B. Dalton Booksellers and substitute teaching 20 years ago while traversing the alternate route in secondary English. I read that copy all day and night; I stayed up until 3:45 am to find out what happened to the main characters and I survived at work the next day fueled solely by my amazement at the twists and turns of the story (and some mediocre Moorestown Mall food court fare). I was genuinely excited when I heard that John Grisham would be publishing YA books. Since I read mostly YA literature these days, I hadn’t revisited Mr. Grisham’s work until the first Theodore Boone, Kid Lawyer novel last year, and frankly, I was not blown away. I found the story slow, and although Mr. Grisham was informative concerning the legal process, he could have added more suspense and action. The second installment of the series, The Abduction, promised to be more exciting, considering that Theodore’s best friend, April Finnemore, is kidnapped. Although I invite you to judge for yourself, I do not believe Mr. Grisham has found his YA voice yet. Mr. Grisham’s treatment of the material is ponderous and plodding, like the last season of a long-running show in which most of the conflict is gone (like M*A*S*H or Happy Days) or a poorly acted movie-of-the-week mystery.
The normally quiet town of Strattenburg gets turned upside down after the abduction of April Finnemore, Theodore Boone’s best friend. To save her, Theo will need his renowned legal knowledge and acumen teamed with an intensity heightened by fear for his best friend and plenty of help from his friends. Despite his parents’ concerns, Theo embarks on a mission to find the kidnapper and to rescue April. The number one suspect is escaped convict Jack Leeper, who was a pen pal to April while in prison and was spotted at a local convenience store around the time of the abduction. Theo, however, has doubts about that scenario, asking more questions about his mysterious friend from a dysfunctional home than he has answers for: “Theo knew April well, but he also realized there were many things about her he didn’t know. Nor did he want to. Was it possible that she would run away without a word to him? Slowly, he had begun to believe the answer was yes” (43). With unexpected but desperately needed help from his discredited, hippie lawyer Uncle Ike, Theo is more determined than ever to uncover the truth and return his friend, safe and secure, to the friendly confines of Strattenburg.
Once again, similar to my reaction to Theodore Boone: Kid Lawyer, I like the plot and idea of The Abduction, but I am unhappy with the slow pace. Once again, Mr. Grisham has bestowed adult sensibilities upon his kids and his interpretation of kid sensibilities upon his adults, resulting in an informative but uneven and unexciting mystery adventure. The ending is just as anti-climactic as the first book’s ending and just as disappointing. I am not saying that future attorneys or Law and Order fanatics will not find this book valuable and engaging, and I have students who said they liked the first book, but I want more from the author who made my heart skip 20 years ago; I want to have to stay up late to find out what happened, not fall asleep before finishing the penultimate chapter. Unfortunately, Mr. Grisham may not have the touch he had in the 1990s, and he may not impress his audience with this latest effort; tweeners are not particularly forgiving or patient readers.

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Castellucci, Cecil. First Day on Earth. Scholastic, 2011. 150 pages. ISBN 13: 978-0-545-06082-0. This book is appropriate for grades 7 and up, or ages 13 and older, depending on reading level and interests. Note: This work contains mature language and situations (3 1/2 stars out of 4).

Alienation has been in vogue for modern tweens and teens since J. D. Salinger introduced a meandering, post-war “lost generation” to Holden Caulfield. Many YA authors, ranging from the serious Lois Lowry in The Giver to the lighthearted Gordon Korman in Schooled have successfully reproduced the strangeness adolescents feel as both they and their world change and grow exponentially. Cecil Castellucci’s fable-like novel First Day on Earth succeeds in creating a character who both feels like an alien and who appears strange and uncomfortable to most of his world. Her lyrical, sparse characterization drips with verisimilitude, proving the old writers’ adage that less is more.
Malcolm has had a rough few years. His father left him for another family, and his mother has been drowning in a bottle ever since. Mal hates and resents his father for abandoning them, so Mal pities his helpless mother and shops and cooks occasionally to keep her alive. However, the secret that has made Mal a stranger to everyone on Earth is that he believes he was abducted by aliens several years ago and he is fairly certain they are returning for him. This personal reality has separated Mal from almost every one of his peers. However, Mal has a soft spot for lost and helpless animals, and Dr. Manitsky the veterinarian at the shelter and her daughter Posey are kind to him even though Mal knows it is partially out of pity for his difficult situation. When Mal brings in a small, frail kitten orphaned by his mother’s traffic accident, Mal cannot help pondering his fate and perhaps foreshadowing his own uncertain future: “[Dr. Manitsky is] scratching his back and the kitten is purring away, like he finally knows that everything is going to be fine. That there is still love in the world despite a dead mother in the middle of the road. Despite being all alone” (27). After meeting a mysterious man named Hooper at an alien abductees’ support group, Mal is forced to face his personal truth and shaky future, either striving to escape forever or managing to live on Earth despite its challenges and imperfections.
I have known quite a few students like Mal in my life; in some ways, I was Mal when I was 14 and 15, scorning the bleak nuclear future and backward morality of the 1970s. Ms. Castellucci has eerily resurrected the primal fear of adolescence, recreating the terrifying realization that, in our own minds, we are always alone. Although Ms. Castellucci delicately walks the line between science fiction and realism, the power of the novel is that it does not depend on a decision between them to be effective. In First Day on Earth, Cecil Castellucci has created a powerful story of pain and acceptance in which reality is at best subjective and sanity is a personal choice we all must make.

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Dashner, James. The Death Cure. Delacorte Press, 2011. 324 pages with an appendix. ISBN 13: 978-0-375-87030-9. This book is for grades 6 and up, or ages 12 and up, depending on reading level (2 stars out of 4).

As long as I am willing and able to stand in front of a group of students and manage a school library collection (or two in my case), I hope to always remember to not apply my standards to my students’ literary choices. As an English teacher, I never liked Dickens whereas I did like Steinbeck and Orwell, but I still cheerfully taught all of them (although I must admit in my heart of hearts that I probably had more enthusiasm for The Grapes of Wrath and 1984 than I did for Great Expectations). As a librarian, I can never let my biases about literature blind me to what my students want. I walk a fine line between what is popular, what is age-appropriate, what is deemed acceptable by community standards, what is in demand, and what is reviewed a certain way or given certain awards, but what I personally like or dislike is irrelevant. Ironically, this is working against me these days, because I love dystopias and always have ever since I was a teenager, so I have to fight the temptation spend half of my budget on the ever-expanding dystopian titles available these days. I would like to cite The Death Cure by James Dashner as one of the most highly successful and well-crafted young adult dystopias, but unfortunately, after his amazing start with The Maze Runner, Mr. Dashner has disappointed me with lots of running and fighting but not lots of substance. My students who have read it disagree with me, but the story felt hackneyed. However, as I stated above, my opinion is irrelevant: I have several copies on the shelf (and on hold) and I am glad I read it, if for no other reason than to learn the answer to the ongoing series question: is WICKED good or bad?
After surviving the various tests, betrayals, and trials of the Scorch, Thomas finds himself in a room of what he assumes to be WICKED’s headquarters. During three weeks of isolation, Thomas has plenty of time to remember all of the reasons he hates WICKED (World In Catastrophe, Killzone Experiment Department) and to plan his eventual escape, but he will need help from Minho, Newt, and whoever else made it this far and was deemed worth saving. Fortunately, Thomas and some of his fellow Gladers are “munies,” immune to the virus ravaging the earth called the Flare. When Thomas and some of his friends are finally summoned by Dr. Janson (aka, Rat Man), they are given the choice to get their memories back or to remain in ignorance. Also, Thomas, always the most curious of the group, finally gets the answer to the question that has been bugging him for a while: what is the “killzone?” Rat man informs him, “The killzone is your brain. It’s where the virus settles and takes hold. The more infected the killzone, the more paranoid and violent the behavior of the infected. WICKED is using your brain and those of a few others to help us fix the problem” (12-13). Minho, Newt, and Thomas must decide if they trust WICKED and the mantra “WICKED is good” that was Teresa’s last communication with Thomas. If they do not want their memories back and they will not cooperate, will WICKED and Rat Man just walk away from the people in whom they have invested so much time and effort? If they escape, how do they get out and where do they go? The world is not a safe place, but it is unclear whether it is more dangerous with WICKED or on the outside where the Flare is turning people into flesh-eating zombies.
When The Maze Runner series came out shortly after The Hunger Games, I was convinced that James Dashner was the heir-apparent to Suzanne Collins. Sadly, however, Mr. Dashner’s conclusion to the trilogy, The Death Cure, does not have the revelatory, bigger-than-it-seems, allegorical impact of its parents, The Shadow Children and The Hunger Games. This effort is less of a cinematic triumph and more of a movie-of-the-week, satisfying enough if nothing better is on at 2 a.m. However, Mr. Dashner has shown promise and my students like his work, so I look forward to his next project.

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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Gray, Eva. Tomorrow Girls: Behind the Gates (Book One). Scholastic, 2011. 211 pages. ISBN 13: 978-0-545-31701-6. This book is for grades 4 and up, or ages 9 and up, depending on reading level. This is also an excellent high-low selection for middle schoolers (3 1/2 stars out of 4).


During the Harry Potter craze, I feared a literary world that was forgetting the scientific and futuristic elements of science fiction. I felt better after reading M.T. Anderson’s Feed and Rodman Philbrick’s The Last Book in the Universe, but with the release of Behind the Gates, the first installment of the four-book series Tomorrow Girls by Eva Gray, it is clear that science fiction is alive and well. The immense cross-over popularity of the Hunger Games trilogy has created such an interest in the dystopia/scary future subgenre that it has finally filtered down to the 9-year-old crowd. Ms. Gray, who on the verso of my advance copy appears to be sci-fi author Suzanne Weyn, author of the solid, 2010 “scary future” sci-fi novel Empty, has written Hunger Games-lite, a suspenseful buddy tale about a group of kids who grow up quickly as they face challenges they think are larger than themselves. But instead of highlighting the political machinations that make Suzanne Collins’ work so engaging, Ms. Gray/Weyn simplifies the story and the setting, creating a much more accessible work that can appeal to not only a broader and younger audience, but also one that may be intimidated by a major novel’s length and appearance.


It is the near future and the world is a mess. Much of the South and Gulf Coast have been destroyed by hurricanes due, it can be assumed, to climate change. Fresh water is rare and meat is practically extinct. The United States is at war with a group called The Alliance that is in the process of invading Canada. Louisa and her BFF Maddie are two of the fortunate young people in this difficult new America. Since both of Maddie’s parents are fighting in the war, Maddie has moved in with Louisa and she is pretending to be her twin sister. Louisa enjoys the privilege of having two parents who, as doctors, still have lucrative jobs and can afford to send their children away to a “safe” boarding school, away from all threats. The Country Manor School appears to be that solution, assuring parents and children alike that their safety is paramount. When their cell phones, electronics, computers and even jewelry are taken, the children are assured it is “for their safety.” But Louisa cannot part with her locket, and its pictures of her parents and grandparents: “I reluctantly reach back to unclasp the locket’s chain. My hand trembles slightly. I can’t stand to part with this. It would be like giving away my parents—and my grandparents!” (36). This and other seemingly unreasonable demands and restrictions, like not being allowed to communicate with the adjoining boys’ school or anyone outside of the school, even their families, creates suspicion, especially in one of the girls’ new companions, Evelyn, who sees conspiracy everywhere. The three girls are thrown together with Rosie, a jock and alpha-type who at first seems caustic, but who grows on Louisa. The four girls are given survival skills classes and told they will be the leaders of something called the New Society. Maddie sees this New Society as an elitist group to which she would not even belong if she was not Louisa’s faux sister, but Louisa likes the idea: “It gives me a feeling of having a serious purpose. I’d never felt like that in school before” (71). However, it is clear that there is more to Country Manor School, and the mysterious, stern headmistress Mrs. Brewster, than meets the eye, and the four girls may be in more trouble than they have ever known in their mostly sheltered lives.

Years of experience working at B. Dalton and Waldenbooks taught me that genres are not truly popular and entrenched until they come out in pulp form. I could not be certain that vampires were entrenched when everyone asked for Twilight; I knew they were when Scholastic released their Vampire Plagues and Poison Apple series. Science fiction is clearly hot—it has filtered down to permeate every level. Pulp is not necessarily a bad thing: this work is no Harlequin romance, but its weaknesses due to an overemphasis on plot and simplistic character development are not fatal flaws, they are what makes the material more accessible. This is not a classic or masterpiece, but it is a very readable version of the latest craze in YA fiction for an important market segment, tweeners and pre-tweeners. I recommend Tomorrow Girls: Behind the Gates by Eva Gray/Suzanne Weyn even though it is derivative and reasonably predictable because those qualities are appropriate to its targeted level.

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Kowitt, H. N. The Loser List. Scholastic, 2011. 207 pages with frequent illustrations. ISBN 13: 978-0-545-24004-8. This book is for grades 3 to 7, or ages 8 to 12, depending on reading level (3 stars out of 4).



Boys are back. In the tweener publishing world’s post-Wimpy Kid, “mangafied,” graphic world of multimedia interfaced reading, in which kids are watching the book’s teaser video on YouTube and playing games and chatting on the book’s website before they even read it, someone finally figured out what eight-to-twelve-year-old boys like. Mix together two teaspoonfuls of wry, pre-adolescent humor and innocent wisdom born of charming naiveté, a couple of tablespoons of embarrassment and guilt from being at an awkward age, a smattering of humorous, simplistic drawings, a quarter cup of bully (occasionally complete with his or her posse), and 2 cups of near misses in which the unlikely hero almost gets beaten up, expelled, grounded, or all of the above. Optional ingredients include half a teaspoon of annoying siblings and a dash of lose-your-best-friend-by-not-being-true-to-yourself. The Loser List by H. N. Kowitt is another unspectacular but appealing example of what boys transitioning from Captain Underpants to the high-low group including Bluford High and/or Orca novels. For the record, I am not denying girls’ interest in this sub-genre, and Dork Diaries does circulate well, but this type of hybrid novel is particularly appealing to boys.


Danny Shine is not looking for trouble, he is just trying to fly under the radar and finish 7th grade without drawing too much attention to his geekiness or his obsession with comic books and drawing macabre images. But when bully Chantal Davis tries to extort Danny’s favorite drawing pen, his coveted twelve dollar T-360, he must defend himself, regardless of the personal cost: “Chantal’s locker is crammed with stuff people have ‘donated.’ Well, I’d already given plenty to the Chantal Davis Fund, and I didn’t feel like making another contribution” (4). As punishment, Chantal puts Danny and best friend Jasper on the Loser List in the girls’ bathroom, which ultimately leads Danny to inadvertently start a food fight, annoy his secret crush Asia O’Neill, and antagonize Gerald Ford Middle School’s other bully, Axl Ryan. When Danny is sent to detention for another offense, Axl is waiting to repay him for his food fight humiliation: “Axl rolled up his shirtsleeves, showing a slice of homemade Sharpie tattoo. In spite of my terror, the artist in me was curious. Did Axl draw it himself? I stretched to get a better look” (55). Danny may be able to use his artistic ability to save him from Axl and his friends, the Skulls, but Danny knows that an unholy alliance can lead to trouble far greater than an occasional jab because of his appearance on the Loser List.

I am still enjoying this recent rash of hybrid, doodle-enhanced novels. Ms. Kowitt’s twist, bulleted, humorous descriptions and drawings of new characters, is both cute and current: that is the way much of young America encounters, digests, and assimilates information. In a world in which even the book is a toy with a screen, buttons, lights, and Internet access, someone has to write books for the Digital Native Generation, complete with graphics, notes, and narration neatly merged together into one cohesive package. The Loser List by H. N. Kowitt is one such package, not all that unique, but just fine for its audience.

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Rylander, Scott. The Fourth Stall. Walden Pond Press (an imprint of HarperCollins), 2011. 314 pages. ISBN 13: 978-0-06-199496-8. This book is for grades 4 and up, or ages 9 and up, depending on reading level (3 1/2 stars out of 4).



There is something about gangsters and the gangster life that still intrigues us. From The Godfather through Goodfellas and culminating with The Sopranos, the illusion of glamour, camaraderie, and power has always uncomfortably accompanied what is by definition a rough, dangerous, amoral, and illegal lifestyle. I have no doubt that the average fan of the gangster genre does not think that the gangster life is for him, any more than a fan of Superman thinks she can fly outside of her dreams. However, vicarious lives do not require the baggage of reality, so it is fun to imagine ourselves as a Corleone or a Soprano living the fast life, attending high class parties and low class funerals, champagne, gowns, and beautiful people (along with copious amounts of blood) flowing like water from a seemingly endless tap. Although rookie author Scott Rylander has not resurrected all of the ambience or violence of the mafia, he has created, with The Fourth Stall, a funny and well-crafted tale of winners and losers, of elation and desperation, of loyalty and betrayal, and most importantly, of failure and redemption.


Although Christian “Mac” Barrett (nicknamed for the ever-resourceful MacGyver) is only in sixth grade, he seems to control his K-8 school. With his best friend Vince keeping the “books” and Joe for protection, Mac oversees his business from the fourth stall from the high window in the East Wing Boys’ bathroom. Anyone who needs a favor, service, or commodity can see Mac, and for the right price, Mac will deliver. Vince and Mac are die-hard Cubs fans, and their beloved losers are finally on the brink of the World Series. They are committed to buying game tickets with their fund. However, when a third grader named Fred comes to the fourth stall and warns Mac that the legendary student thug Staples is back in town, taking bets and fixing games all over school, Mac is compelled to provide both protection and a plan for removing the rough and dishonest Staples before he drives out the relatively benign Mac and Vince for good: “We couldn’t live like this. The only way to end this was to get Staples out of my school for good. We definitely needed to do more than simply protect Fred; we needed to take down Staples” (58). However, when Staples seems to know every move Mac and Vince make, the possibility of a traitor seems more and more likely. If Mac cannot figure out the leak in his organization and find a way of neutralizing Staples, he will be out of business forever, his school will fall under the thumb of a greedy, heartless thug, and he and Vince will never get to see the Cubs in the World Series.

Just as we are accustomed to the good cop-bad cop scenario from watching Kojak and Starsky and Hutch, we seem to tolerate the good thug-bad thug scenario just as well. I like Mac and Vince as the good thugs, even though they break the law, even though they seem to be underhanded at best, even though they manipulate others for their own benefit. One cannot blame the liquor store for turning people into alcoholics. The pint-sized Dons are only providing a service, albeit a shady one. Although there is some light violence in this novel, Mac and Vince are not fighters and they do not advocate violence; they have people for that. In fact, Mr. Rylander’s description of the Rogues’ Gallery who Mac and Vince hire to take out Staples’ Collector, Barnaby Willis, is the highlight of the novel. With names like iBully, Kitten, and Great White, this colorful cast of characters belongs in its own novel. I believe The Fourth Stall will appeal to mainly boys who are looking for something funny to read that does not have to have explosions every chapter; the action develops slowly but smartly. Like Jack Ferraiolo’s The Big Splash, Mr. Rylander’s debut effort is a highly stylized and well-constructed mystery that will leave readers wanting more adventures from the fourth stall from the high window.

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Magoon, Kekla. Camo Girl. Aladdin, 2011. 218 pages. ISBN 13: 978-1-4169-7804-6. This book is for grades 4 and up, or ages 9 and up, depending on reading level (3 stars out of 4).



I recently read in People that Jennifer Lopez was named the World’s Most Beautiful Person. I would not dare to argue J. Lo’s bootyliciousness, but that title is not only one of the most arbitrary pronouncements ever, it is also one of the most damaging. Beauty and its perception cause far too much anguish, stress and suicide. Feeling pretty is a tall order these days, despite the countless aids and accessories available. Several entire industries exist because of our desire to be more attractive, and as their advertisements suggest, we need them to feel good about ourselves. Camo Girl by Kekla Magoon lyrically explores the natural insecurities tweeners (ages 9-12) feel about beauty, acceptance, and loss. The beauty conflict is provided by the protagonist, Ella, who has “camouflage” skin tone with different shades and splotches of brown on her face. Ella is an imperfect narrator who sometimes sounds too mature and experienced for her age and life, but she mostly captures the pain of looking different and feeling ugly with intimacy and verisimilitude.


Ella and Z have been friends forever even though Z has changed over the past few years after Ella’s father died of illness and Z’s gambling father abandoned his family. Z and his mother live clandestinely at the local Wal-Mart (where she works) outside of Las Vegas. Z lives in a quixotic, fantasy world of dragons, knights, and quests in which the limits of reality are blurred: “See, it’s not that Z doesn’t know what’s going on. It’s not that he doesn’t know what’s real and what’s not. It’s just that he can’t stop pretending that the world is a better place than it actually is. If that makes him sick, then I wanna get me some of that flu” (13). Ella is accustomed to being picked on by jerk Jonathan Hoffman, and she has learned to accept her ostracism from any popular group, even her former BFF Millie’s crowd. But when new kid Bailey comes to school and he is not only the only other African-American at her school, he is cute too, Ella feels torn. Could Bailey find her “camo face” attractive? Would he accept Z as he is and not care that he is the butt of the school’s jokes? Could he actually understand the loss and fear that Ella and Z share? Ella must decide if Bailey is interested in popularity or real, in-your-face friendship.


There are too many books about beauty queens, beautiful people, and supermodels and not enough books that celebrate and exalt the ordinary. We are not all born with the potential to look like J. Lo or Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge. Many of us are overweight, have bad skin and are bald (like me) and will never be one of the beautiful people. I like Camo Face by Kekla Magoon not only because it is beautifully written (reminiscent of the lyrical prose of Cynthia Kadohata), but also because the message is powerful: a book does not require a beautiful cover to be a beautiful piece of art.








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Choldenko, Gennifer. No Passengers Beyond this Point. Dial Books for Young Readers, 2011. 241 pages. ISBN 13: 978-0-8037-3534-7. This book is for grades 5 and up, or ages 10 and up, depending on reading level (2 stars out of 4).



It is sometimes hard to remember that I am an adult, and not a young one at that. When I read a story, novel, or narrative that I have “read before” my first thought is to condemn it as derivative. However, let’s face it: my students (and most others, I imagine) are not as well-read as I am. I am not trying to blow my own horn, but I have watched many teachers berate students for not knowing something that only adults normally know; as educators, we need to understand that we have taken classes in this stuff and that we have years of experience and a meta-understanding of YA lit that no 12-year-old can possess. Having said that, authors do not always deserve a break for reinventing an existing story. Yes, Wendy Mass’s 11 Birthdays is Groundhog Day in YA novel form, but it is utterly charming. However, Gennifer Choldenko’s new work No Passengers Beyond this Point, an obvious homage to the 1960s British groundbreaking teledrama The Prisoner, is neither charming nor effective.


India, Finn, and Mouse Tompkins, fourteen, twelve, and six respectively, have lost their home. Mom tried her best, after Dad’s death six years ago, to keep it together, but a perfect storm of financial trouble finally led to foreclosure and repossession. The children, one moody, self-absorbed teenager, one quiet, dutiful tweener, and one precocious child genius with an invisible friend, Bing, will have to move to Colorado to stay with their Uncle Red while Mom cleans up some business and finishes out her school year as a teacher. While on the flight to Fort Baker, Colorado, the plane encounters some turbulence and lands instead in Falling Bird, a mysterious place in which the normal rules of life do not seem to apply. They know something is wrong when India notices that the flight did not last long enough and they look out the window at a surreal sky: “She nods hesitantly, then raises the window shade to peer at the sky. It’s night now, except for this one patch of blue—a puzzle piece from the wrong puzzle” (49). During their arrival, they are celebrated and cheered, given huge houses and tons of clothes, all in their own styles. However, all is not as it seems, and it appears that the children must choose between this world and the real one. Staying is easy; it is extremely difficult, a “1-in-10,000 chance” according to one Falling Bird resident, to get back to the reality with their mother, uncle, and friends. To complicate matters, not all three children are sure they want to return from where they came; they must all make difficult decisions if they want to stay together and build a future they can believe in.

I was almost sure I would like this novel because I am so fond of the author’s other works, specifically Al Capone Does My Shirts and If a Tree Falls at Lunch Period. Although I did like certain aspects of No Passengers Beyond this Point, like the drawings at the beginning of each chapter and the different characters Ms. Choldenko uses to skillfully narrate each chapter in authentic voices. Also, the author starts the novel with an all-too-true representation of the housing crunch that affects so many Americans; this is a timely and poignant message. However, although I normally like a little puzzle to solve in a novel, there is too much mystery surrounding Falling Bird. Is it real or a dream? Are they really there or still on the plane? The combined narratives give a consistently incomplete description of everything that would give the reader a firm footing in a strange world. Ms. Choldenko, due to a surprising and disappointing lack of description, explanation, and raison d’etre for Falling Bird, fails in her attempt to compel the reader to emotionally join the three main characters on their journey through varying stages of adolescence and pre-adolescence. I believe that with more explanation and description, this could have been an effective novel; as it stands, it is merely an enigma.

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Shang, Wendy Wan-Long. The Great Wall Of Lucy Wu. Scholastic, 2011. 312 pages. ISBN 13: 978-0-545-16215-9. This book is appropriate for grades 3 to 6, or ages 8 to 12, depending on reading level.


(3 1/2 stars out of 4)


As a former high school English teacher, I have a tendency to shy away from books that are “young.” I like the issues and complexities of “older” novels; it’s a tough transition from Paradise Lost to Junie B. Jones. However, sometimes new works look so utterly charming that I cannot resist—books like A Crooked Kind of Perfect and Larry: the King of Rock and Roll have made me laugh far more than anything on my middle school’s shelves, and both of those books would be as welcome in a third grader’s hands as they would be in a fifth or sixth grader’s hands. When I picked it up, I hoped that The Great Wall of Lucy Wu by first-time children’s author Wendy Wan-Long Shang would be one of those cute, funny, occasionally clever and/or insightful novels and it did not disappoint. I was so thoroughly engaged in the melodrama of the protagonist that I will even forgive the new author’s use of the word “schlep” (what 11-year-old would say that?). I chuckled from beginning to end and laughed out loud several times during my afternoon with Lucy Wu, which may be the best endorsement available for a middle-level novel.


Precocious 11-year-old Lucy Wu is certainly envious of her gorgeous, Chinese-speaking sister Regina and always feels misunderstood, underappreciated and disrespected in her family, but Lucy is convinced that Regina’s move to college will kick off the best year of her life. However, as soon as she and BFF Madison finish planning a massive redecoration of the bedroom Lucy used to share with Regina, she receives what she perceives as terrible news: Lucy will have to share her room with an old aunt from China named Yi Po. Yi is Lucy’s deceased grandmother Po Po’s long lost sister, and she has finally surfaced. Lucy resents Yi Po for being alive while her beloved grandmother Po Po is gone, and Lucy builds a wall between her space and Yi Po’s space in their room: “Now the desk and bookcase formed a wall between the two beds. The Great Wall of Lucy Wu . . . And I hid my favorite picture of my grandmother, the last one we took before she got sick, in my bookcase” (72). Lucy gets angry at herself because she is starting to lose her distinct memories of Po Po, and angry at Yi Po for reminding her of that sad fact. Even Po Po’s world class noodles, reproduced by Yi Po, depress Lucy: “I can’t remember what Po Po’s noodles tasted like anymore. I wish there were a way to record flavors the way you can record music, and then you could play it over and over in your mouth” (83). To make matters worse, the family of her acquaintance Talent Chang has opened a Chinese school and Mr. And Mrs. Wu have told Lucy that she must go. Unfortunately, Chinese school is scheduled during practice for Lucy’s one true passion, basketball. Lucy desperately wants to be team captain, but even if she could play, the bully Sloane Connors also wants to be captain, and her band of Amazons are ready to pounce on anyone who gets in Sloane’s way. Lucy must make some hard decisions about her future on and off of the court, and she must somehow learn to accept Yi Po’s odd yet hauntingly familiar ways if she is ever to find harmony in her life.

I was instantly taken with Lucy as a character because of her authentic voice; I know many 11-year-olds who have the same manic disposition, the same insecurities, the same overreactions to everything. She is annoying at times, but only because she is real. Ms. Sheng is careful to make the Chinese-American Wu family just as American as Chinese; Lucy’s favorite food is Italian, although dumplings and Chinese noodles do play a prominent role in the story. I particularly enjoyed the author’s use of Chinese idioms and language; I even recognized one of the stories from Jon Muth’s brilliant and quirky Zen Shorts. The Great Wall of Lucy Wu by Wendy Wan-Long Shang is a fine first novel that poignantly and humorously paints a picture of two worlds—old and new, Chinese and American. Not surprisingly, although the two worlds seem disparate, they are more alike than anyone realizes; it is both their similarities and their differences that strengthen both the characters and the narrative.

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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Crowley, James. Starfish. Disney/Hyperion, 2010. 310 pages including references and glossary. ISBN 13: 978-142312588-4. This book is for grades 5 and up, or ages 10 and up, depending on reading level.

I have lost the current narrative of Native Americans. Frankly, I am not even sure if the politically correct term is Native American, Indian, or something else. I lost my connection to the narrative 10 or 15 years ago, when I first visited Foxwoods casino. Tragically, from that point onward, I have only heard about Native Americans in 2 contexts: casinos and alcoholism. We have wronged Native Americans so profoundly throughout our shared history that they are reduced to incorporating our capitalism into their lifestyles to survive. It can be argued that alcoholism did not exist before colonialism; we passed on the worst of ourselves to our captives while taking the best of what they had. Any reason to celebrate the rich traditions and rituals of Native Americans is welcome, so in that vein, Starfish by James Crowley is a good novel to introduce young readers to a valuable and vanishing piece of history. It is a rather slow tale as adventure tales go, and it feels a little contrived, but it still opens our cruel past enough to allow visitors a glimpse of early 20th Century colonialism at work.

Orphans Beatrice and Lionel, 12 and 9 respectively, live at the Chalk Bluff boarding school on the Blackfeet reservation. Although Lionel is reasonably cooperative with the Christian brothers and the soldiers who reside and teach there, Beatrice clings stubbornly to her Indian ways, keeping her hair long, singing Indian songs, and performing small rituals that her grandfather taught her, like casting tobacco to the wind and praying: “She turned west, holding the tobacco as an offering, then south . . . Lionel could see Beatrice’s lips move as she sang a song quietly to herself. He felt a slight breeze from the north as if somebody or something were actually listening” (16). When soldiers Jenkins and Lumpkin threaten Beatrice after she and Lionel find a frozen Indian in the snow and the soldiers defile him, she and Lionel run away, frantically searching for their grandfather’s residence in the Montana hills. Along the way, the children meet a colorful cast of characters like Corn Poe Boss Ribs, the generally unwanted and obnoxious but charming son of Big Bull Boss Ribs; and Avery John Hawkins and his son Junebug, who may hold some secrets about the army, the mountains, and their grandfather. The winter is harsh and traveling is difficult, but Spring and Summer finally arrive. Beatrice and Lionel may feel safe for a short time, but they have stolen an army horse, they are fugitives because Beatrice attacked Sergeant Jenkins before running away, and Beatrice has spent the entire time attempting to recover from Tuberculosis. Without even knowing what freedom will feel like, Beatrice and Lionel still struggle to discover, maintain, and embrace their identities as Blackfeet.

Starfish by James Crowley is a capable first novel, but it does nothing new with its genre. Although I was pleased to read a book about the Native American plight, and it appears that Mr. Crowley did his homework concerning the setting of this work, I was not surprised to read that he is a screenwriter; this book had after-school special or Disney movie written all over it. Mr. Crowley paints scenes well but his character development is weak. The characters act in very stereotypical ways, and when characters like the Captain show mercy, the reader does not know why, since he allowed so much cruelty in the past. The grandfather has Karate Kid-type wisdom; the soldiers are drunk and mean, the children establish their own Lord of the Flies hierarchy, Lionel becomes “more Indian” and discovers his “true self” as the novel unfolds: these are all devices I have seen before, either on television or in novels or in both. I understand that this is a coming-of-age novel, but I want more from authors. In the era of L. H. Anderson’s Chains and Forge, Philbrick’s Homer P. Figg, and M. T. Anderson’s Octavian Nothing, the bar has been raised for historical fiction. Starfish reads like an old dusty book off of the shelf: informative, occasionally enlightening, but rather old-fashioned and slow.

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Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Landon, Kristen. The Limit. Aladdin, 2010. 291 pages. ISBN 13: 978-1-4424-0271-3. This book is for grades 6 and up, or ages 12 and up, depending on reading level (3 stars out of 4).

Dystopia is the new vampire, which in turn was the new wizard, which in turn was the new Lemony Snicket. Now that The Hunger Games series has reminded the YA reading audience how much fun and how powerful dystopias can be, many authors (and publishers, who tend to like whatever is popular and whatever people will buy) have clamored to get in on the act. Some very good books, like James Dashner’s Maze Runner series, have continued the dystopia tradition well. The latest entry is The Limit by Kristen Landon, and although I do not think it will be a series, it is a story for our times that presents a frighteningly realistic look at our future, in which we become so powerless over debt that we allow our children to pay our way.

Thirteen-year-old Matt Dunston is great at math, but his skill cannot save his family from Federal Debt Ordinance 169-D. In Matt’s world, probably only a few years removed from our own, everyone has a “limit,” a financial ceiling that no one may exceed. If a family does spend over its limit, the government has the right to force reduced spending by limiting credit, or to take one or more of the family’s children to a workhouse so the child or children can work to pay off the family’s debt faster. After an embarrassing scene at the supermarket in which the clerk had to deny a purchase because the Dunston family limit had been reached, Mrs. Dunston and her children return home to find a shiny black limousine sitting in front of the house. Sensing what is going to happen, Mrs. Dunston fearfully turns to Matt, her oldest son and therefore the vulnerable one: “She gave my thigh a tense squeeze. ‘Whatever happens, remember I love you. We’re going to fix it’” (34). Instead of fixing it, Matt is whisked away to a workhouse and tested. Fortunately for Matt, he is a very talented young man and therefore qualifies for the “Top Floor,” in which kids live in apparent luxury with seemingly limitless spending accounts. However, after Matt overhears a possibly dangerous conversation between the authorities and one of the other Top Floor children begins getting crippling headaches, Matt starts to wonder about the true nature of the workhouse: “Headaches. Crab Woman’s [the main lobby guard] voice from the night before grated like gravel in my mind: It was easier when they just got headaches. You going to have to dump this one too?’” (72). When Matt starts using his impressive math and problem solving skills to investigate and hack into some systems, he finds much more than he bargained for, and danger may be closer than he thinks.

Like Haddix’s Shadow Children series, The Limit by Kristen Landon highlights a new twist in the dystopia genre, in Landon’s case, a financial element that makes children fiscally responsible for their parents’ sins. Completely unsurprising in an age in which YA novels often feature functional children of dysfunctional parents, this new preoccupation is perfectly appropriate for the times. After all, don’t our children always pay for our actions, whether it is by cleaning up the environment, fighting our wars, or assuming our debts? Also, the Dunstons are a perfect example of the post-digital family: Mom consumes but is clueless about her consumption; children are glued to electronics, and Dad seems to recklessly live larger than his means, buying and spending thoughtlessly. Although underdeveloped in the novel, the family symbolizes America’s stubborn denial that we as a country have lived too large for too long. Its helplessness is our helplessness over a financial system that has been stretched too thinly for too long. The Limit by Kristen Landon is a fine suspense novel, but its success relies less on quality writing and plot development and more on a disturbing idea that we understand but do not internalize: eventually, our children will pay for our bloated lifestyles, and that payment may come sooner, and be harsher, than we think.

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When I started reviewing books for this column I sent most of the major publishers a letter asking for advance review copies of new YA novels. Most companies ignored me, but Scholastic put me on their list. I try not to review their books more often than anyone else’s and I certainly never allow their generosity to influence my opinion. However, I must thank Scholastic, because had I not been receiving its advance copies I would not know about many of their very accessible and readable series they publish for the 8-12 tweener crowd. Targeted mostly for girls, these series have a middle class, suburban feel and they tell simple, fun stories. Lacking the edginess of the Bluford or Hazelwood High series, Scholastic’s offerings are more Disney than Twilight, and they have a broad appeal, especially for the surprisingly healthy number of patrons not interested in or not allowed to read books containing violence, cursing, and mature situations. I recently read two new series and liked them both. One of the series, B Magical, was released in 2009 as Spelling B but I confess that I missed it the first time around.

Connor, Lexi. B Magical: The Missing Magic. Scholastic, 2011, originally published 2009. 130 pages. ISBN 13: 978-0-545-11736-4. This book is for grades 4 to 6, or ages 8 to 12, depending on reading level.

When Beatrix (friends call her B) turned eleven, she expected to get her magic like everyone else in her family of witches. B expected to be able to make up a rhyming couplet to cast a spell like her parents and her big sister Dawn, but B is at a loss as to why she has been singled out for shame and weakness. When B wanders into Dawn’s room and finds her in a make-up and fashion session with her witch friends, she is asked by the friends to display some of her “newbie magic,” but B is terrified because she may have to reveal that she doesn’t have any magic, newbie or otherwise: “B panicked. She opened her mouth to say she couldn’t, then clamped it shut again. There had to be a way out of this mess!” (37). When Mr. Bishop, B’s new replacement English teacher, proposes a spelling bee and offers tickets to the hottest concert in town for the winner, B is determined to be the best speller in school, even if it means overcoming her terrible fear of speaking in public. However, ironically, being the best speller may spell out disaster for B and the contest when the tickets go missing, the expected culprit may actually be innocent, and all signs point to disaster for B unless she can solve the mystery.

Daly, Catherine R. Petal Pushers. Scholastic, 2011. ISBN 13: 978-0-545-21450-6. This book is for grades 4 to 6, or ages 8 to 12, depending on reading level.

Life is about to turn upside down for Del (short for Delphinium) Bloom and her family. Del’s grandparents own the only flower shop in their small New Hampshire town but they have decided to retire in Florida. Del has worked at Flowers on Fairfield for a while and is both organized and responsible. But her creative mother, with help from English professor Dad, has decided to run the store on a trial basis much to Del’s chagrin. Del is not convinced that her parents can make this work, and she starts to sound like her old, curmudgeonly Aunt Lily as she fears that the store will be lost: “Yeah, I thought to myself rather meanly, things will be much better with both Mr. and Mrs. Disorganized in charge . . . I didn’t like the way things were going. Not one bit” (51). Del begins to worry even more when she finds out Fleur, a fancy new 21st-Century flower shop, opens in town. Things reach a fever pitch when Del discovers that her arch-rival, the mean Ashley Edwards, is a member of the biggest wedding party of the year, and that party may be leaning towards using the brand new mall flower shop. Complicating matters even more is Hamilton, a new boy at school who may be Del’s first legitimate crush but may also be whisked away by the vicious Ashley. Del must not only work hard to save the sale and the shop, she must also learn to be more flexible in her thinking if she wants to save her relationships with her family, friends, and potential crushes.

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Mass, Wendy. The Candymakers. Little, Brown & Co., 2010. 453 pages. ISBN 13: 978-0-316-00258-5. This book is appropriate for grades 4 and up, or ages 9 and older, depending on reading level and interests (3 1/2 out of 4 stars).

I felt like a fan after meeting New Jersey author Wendy Mass at the NJASL convention last month, and I confess that I am reviewing her new, excellent page-turner The Candymakers from a signed copy, but I will try not to let those facts color my opinion of what is a fine addition to Ms. Mass’s repertoire. Author of noted tweener works like A Mango-Shaped Space (2003), the tweener take on Groundhog Day (the movie), 11 Birthdays (2009), and my personal favorite, the definitive, modern YA boy-finds-father-and-finds-himself, coming-of-age novel Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life (2006), Ms. Mass has obviously done some homework in preparing for her surprisingly fresh take on the ins and outs of the candy making industry, and she has stepped up the level of her writing in the process. Ingredients and confectionary processes are described with the ease that results from research, and characters are both developed with gusto and interwoven with craft, incorporating intricate, detailed plot mapping. Feeling like a fantasy but grounded in reality, cinematic in scope and exciting like a thriller, The Candymakers may be a surprise hit to everyone but those, like readers of this column, who know and admire Ms. Mass’s work.

The stakes are high when the Confectionary Association announces the four twelve-year-old local contestants in the annual contest to create and produce a new candy. Odds seem to favor the Candymaker’s son, Logan, but there is something Logan either does not know or does not understand, something disturbing and conspicuous that Miles, the quiet but sincere contestant with the mysterious backpack, is drawn to upon their first meeting: “In an instant, Miles knew he wanted more than anything to be this boy’s friend. It wasn’t because he felt sorry for him or anything like that. Logan radiated something that felt like goodness. In a weird way, he made Miles feel peaceful” (138). Although Logan seems to be damaged, all four characters carry their baggage partly for the world to see and partly hidden, sometimes even from themselves and their own families. Daisy, a seemingly bouncy and vivacious girl, holds surprisingly powerful secrets and seems to possess unusual strength, while Philip seems to be spoiled, rich kid who expects to win because of his ruthless and insensitive attitude, molded by his Machiavellian older brother and father, but he is hiding something in his notebook that, if revealed, could rock his world and change everything, something known only known by a trusted family servant, Reggie, the Alfred to Philip’s Batman: “He hated that Reggie knew his secret. He supposed it was inevitable, though. Reggie had been a constant shadow since the day his mother died, when he was three” (258). Although the four contestants at the Life Is Sweet Candy Factory do not know it, their fates will intertwine in ways unexpected by any of them, and their individual success will be dependent upon a shifting set of criteria and expectations unforeseen by all.

Ms. Mass does not insult her audience, she fills its voids. I wondered when I saw the length of this work. At 452 pages, I initially feared that students would be scared off, or that the author simply wrote too much or that her editor did not have enough discipline with her red pen. Happily, my fears were groundless. Ms. Mass deftly creates and energizes four distinct characters, each with enough surprises and angst to carry them through to the end of a long novel. In a creative and innovative fashion (for this genre), she characterizes not only through the actions of her characters but also by those characters’ reactions to each other. Also, the length is welcome, not scary. I have many students who, by reading Harry Potter and Twilight, have demonstrated that they will read long novels. Length is not intimidating, reading level, vocabulary, and sophistication of structure are. With The Candymakers, Wendy Mass has given the candy making industry, a topic that felt hackneyed after Willy Wonka, a new perspective and spin for the modern reader. I predict much popularity in my libraries for The Candymakers; I had better go make some room on my Fiction “M” shelf and buy two or three more copies.

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Gosselink, John. The Defense of Thaddeus A. Ledbetter. Amulet Books, 2010. 228 pages. ISBN 13: 978-0-8109-8977-1. This book is appropriate for grades 5 and up, or ages 10 and older, depending on reading level and interests. This is also an excellent high-low selection (3 stars out of 4).


Although Jeff Kinney’s illustrations, explanations and angst are simplistic, he has created a sensation with the Wimpy Kid series, so like the spate of fantasies after Harry Potter and the glut of vampire books that followed Twilight, I expected an overabundance of quickly constructed, poorly conceived, and hastily drawn, derivative imitations of Greg Heffley all over the publishing world. Either the publishers did not think anyone else could catch lightning in a bottle like Mr. Kinney, or authors just have not produced, because up until now, I have not had copycat series or stand-alone novels to recommend. However, Austin, Texas, educator John Gosselink must have his finger on the pulse of something, because I am confident that the Wimpy Kid crowd will quickly latch onto his first novel, The Defense of Thaddeus A. Ledbetter. Its freestyle approach, quirky illustrations, and intentionally juvenile, faux-official look will entertain its readers as much as the main character frustrates his school community (and occasionally his readers as well).


Thaddeus A. Ledbetter (soon to be Esq. as he is quick to point out) feels he has received a bum rap. If you ask this precocious twelve-year-old, he will tell you that he is a repeat victim of circumstance, punished for trying to help his fellow man. However, after incidents in which he nearly sets fire to his pastor, causes $50,000.00 in damage to Crooked Creek Middle School, and instigates a series of events culminating in Thaddeus’s bus attacking an obese bystander mistaken for a Volkswagen Beetle (among other absurd and outrageous incidents in which Thaddeus is involved), the beleaguered Principal Cooper sends Thaddeus to his own, personal In-School Suspension for his entire seventh grade year. From ISS, Thaddeus mounts his “defense,” a series of documents featuring quirky illustrations that he submits regularly to Mr. Cooper in lieu of any of the actual schoolwork he is assigned (and mostly ignores). For example, when Thaddeus lobbies for an “important student lane” that would allow important students, like Thaddeus, to get around the building, Mr. Cooper, as frustrated as anyone over the maelstrom that seems to thrive in and around Thaddeus, still responds with level-headed wisdom: “Who and what determines who the ‘important’ students are? I have a feeling you would volunteer for such an assignment, but we like to think all of our students here at Crooked Creek are important” (20). Thaddeus is a loose cannon who must be stopped, but there are reasons for his unusual and obsessive behavior that must be considered. After all, he is only twelve and should not be able to disrupt the world all that much, he does occasionally make a lot of sense, and there should be services available for students who have trouble operating efficiently within the normal confines of the school environment. When a campaign is mounted to free Thaddeus from his “imprisonment” (one part of Thaddeus’s portfolio is his “prison journal”) Mr. Cooper and the rest of the adults surrounding Thaddeus must decide if they can forgive and move on, or if Thaddeus must, for his safety and the safety of the community, stay in ISS.


I was entertained by The Defense of Thaddeus A. Ledbetter, and I laughed frequently at the protagonist’s antics with the same laughter I normally reserve for The Three Stooges or Lucille Ball. John Gosselink has written a slapstick book, complete with over the top villains, colorful guest stars, and hapless heroes who, despite their best intentions, just cannot catch a break. However, there is an underside to this work: the kid is downright annoying. Thaddeus is every teacher’s and administrator’s nightmare, and he is allowed, in this unrealistic school setting, to run amok. He is asked, not required, to do his work, and he is not provided school services until much later than indicated. Thaddeus’s behavior is obnoxious and obsessive-compulsive, neither normal nor acceptable. I laughed at Thaddeus, but not always with him; although I do not think tweeners will care or notice, I found his behavior occasionally infuriating. Despite my problems with the protagonist’s attitude, I still like The Defense of Thaddeus A. Ledbetter by John Gosselink, and I will still recommend it; it is a bit more edgy than Diary of a Wimpy Kid, more for the older tweener rather than the younger one.

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Friday, December 03, 2010

Grant, Michael. The Magnificent 12 Book One: The Call. Katherine Tegen Books, 2010. 243 pages. ISBN 13: 978-0-06-183366-3. This book is for grades 5 to 8, or ages 10 to 14, depending on reading level (3 1/2 stars out of 4).

There is no shortage of fantasy on the YA shelves in late 2010. The Harry Potter/Twilight phenomenon has spawned a whole cast (all puns intended to the work of P. C. Cast, one of the most popular fantasy authors in my middle school library) of second generation wizards and vampire-wolf-zombies, and I would speak more about them if I knew more. However, frequent readers of this column know that I do not review much fantasy because I do not like it. I comprehend fantasy’s popularity, I respect its quality authors, and I buy a healthy amount of new and classic fantasy for my students, but like ballet and cooked spinach, I understand their importance but I do not appreciate them. I make no apologies for my likes and dislikes, but I try my best to be fair when a new series comes along that I could review. I am always surprised when I like a fantasy, but The Call, the first book of the new series The Magnificent 12 by Michael Grant, is the kind of work that everyone can like: it is funny, its characters are charming even when they are unsuccessful, and an unlikely hero a la The Karate Kid gets to be a star, even though he is seemingly an ordinary kid.

David “Mack” MacAvoy does not want or need to be a hero. Frankly, he does not believe he could handle it anyway; he is mediocre in every way, surely not the stuff of heroes. However, even though he is medium regular in seemingly every way, there is another side to him that will eventually save his life: “His eyes were brown, too, which is the most common eye color in the world. But there was something else about his eyes. They were eyes that noticed things. Mack didn’t miss much” (3). After nearly getting killed by the guild of bullies at Sedona’ Arizona’s Richard Gere Middle School, he saves the life and arm of Stefan Marr, king bully, who misses Mack with a punch and instead punches a window. Shortly thereafter, a strange man named Grimluk informs Mack that he is actually a member of the Magnifica, a group of twelve guardians who have kept the Pale Queen and her minions trapped for 3,000 years. Grimluk is the last of the old guard, and Mack is charged with finding and assembling the new twelve so they can re-defeat the Pale Queen, aka the Dread Foe, and her evil but alluring daughter, Princess Ereskigal. Stefan the bully decides that Mack is now “under his wing” and he becomes Mack’s protector. Mack is mysteriously provided a replacement for himself at home, a Golem made of mud that looks and sounds exactly like Mack, so Grimluk implores Mack to enlist his newfound brethren around the world: “‘You must go! Now! For the enemy has your scent, and although the Dread Foe is still bound within her subterranean lair, her minions [six races of monsters] run riot” (87). Mack must save the world from an enemy he does not know with a group of people he has never met, traveling with his former bully across the world at age twelve. Who know life could be so exciting for “ordinary” people?

This book is a funny, clever romp and I enjoyed it from beginning to end. It is clearly the first in a series that could get as prolific as the Series of Unfortunate Events. Mr. Grant has Lemony Snicket’s love of language and sarcasm, two passions students have demonstrated they enjoy. The Golem starts a great feature about halfway through the book in which he begins a journal of his experiences that the audience gets to see; it is dramatic irony at its most hilarious, and one can just imagine what will happen to Mack when he attempts to return to his “normal” life and replaces his Golem. Mack is a perfect Everyman, a regular guy asked to be extraordinary and trying his darnedest to not let the world down. Cliffhangers and/or the Golem’s journal entries help to propel each chapter end, while colorful enemies dot the book’s landscape and give Mack a reason to feel more empowered; each day he lives, he figures he just might be better than the bad guys. The back story is effectively woven into the story with humorous flashbacks of Grimluk’s childhood so that the insanity Mack feels is not as insane in the mind of the reader. Also, if an elegant and sophisticated website is the sign of a good book (www.themag12.com) then this is the best work of the millennium; the website is very cool. Michael Grant has created a winner in The Magnificent 12; I hope he can maintain the pace and humor levels enough to last through all twelve participants.

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Barnes, Derrick. We Could Be Brothers. Scholastic Press, 2010. 164 pages. ISBN 13: 978-0-545-13573-3. This book is for grades 6 to 8, or ages 12 to 14, depending on reading level. This is an excellent high-low selection, rated 4.4 reading level (3 1/2 stars out of 4).

I have frequently lamented our lack of good high-low fiction, especially for boys and especially for people of color, but last month’s The Cruisers by Walter Dean Myers and this month’s We Could Be Brothers by Kansas City’s Derrick Barnes have given me hope. However, I had an intriguing problem while reading Mr. Barnes’ engaging short novel: I did not know all of the slang. I was suddenly back in college English class, reading the first page of James Joyce’s Ulysses and trying to figure out what “Chrysostomos” is. When the two main characters in We Could Be Brothers talk about giving each other “dap,” I have no idea what they mean. I assume my students know what they mean, but it bothers and intrigues me that I do not. I could probably infer the meaning of it, but I found myself caught off-guard; Mr. Barnes either has his laptop firmly on the pulse of the youth of America, or he is using last year’s “in” words and comes across as corny. I like the experience of treading on new linguistic ground, and I will ask some of my middle schoolers if “dap” means what I think it means. I applaud Mr. Barnes for giving his characters authentic voices; at least, they sound authentic to me. Although their actions are sometimes too pat and pleasing to the continuity and message of the storyline, at least they do not sound like me trying to sound like I am an urban 13-year-old.

Robeson Battlefield wonders if he will ever see Kansas City’s Alain Locke Middle School again after his bad fortune: Robeson has been assigned to dreaded Post-School Suspension for three days. He must travel down the Bermuda Hallway to a dusty, dingy room in which he must sort papers for the unpleasant and insensitive Mr. Patt. However, it turns out that one of PSS’s mainstays, tough-guy-type Pacino Clapton, may not be as street as he seems. And Rosilyn, who shares her Literature class, is fine, in the most attractive sense of the word. When the three middle schoolers start to know each other, they discover that one thing separating them is language. For example, Robeson refuses to be called the N word and substituting “brotha” seems plastic to Pacino; however, he agrees: “Pacino looked at me like he couldn’t care less. ‘Whatever, brotha. That just ain’t the way I get down. But if you want me to call you brotha, I will. Nobody will believe we’re really brothas anyway’” (59-60). Difficult at first, and coming from “different sides of the tracks” the boys nevertheless begin to form an unlikely friendship, partially because of a mutual enemy, the troubled and dangerous Tariq Molten, bad news even to the street-wise Pacino: “‘Tariq’s mama’s an alcoholic. He’s had about ten stepdaddies, and I hear that almost all of them whupped his butt on the daily . . . Every now and then, his grandma will come get him, I hear. But then he’ll do something stupid again and end up right back in trouble. I think even his granny has given up on him’” (65). Although neither young man will admit his fear, both of them know that tangling with Tariq is not in anyone’s best interest, and both of them know the confrontation will eventually occur. However, Robeson may have a surprise or two up his sleeve, rendering him less helpless than he appears, and Pacino may not be as tough and fearsome as the image he portrays to the world.

Mr. Barnes’ new effort is a solid read, drawing readers into the characters’ very different worlds seamlessly. Character development is a bit slow, but the action is fast-paced and exciting. The themes of empowerment, personal and neighborhood responsibility, and staying true to oneself are modeled well, and refreshingly, with the exception of Tariq’s family and the PSS teacher, the adults act like adults you would want to hang out at the barber shop and kibbitz with. They form an action group to assist in the community and are respected by most folks in town. They are parents to emulate, not fear or abhor. Although I feel that the story wraps up a little too nicely and the once imperfect parts by the end seem a little too new and improved, We Could Be Brothers by Derrick Barnes presents an excellent model for an exemplary way to live and lead: take care of yourself and take care of your brothers, and remember that everyone is your brother.

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Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Grisham, John. Theodore Boone, Kid Lawyer. Dutton Children’s Books, 2010. 263 pages. ISBN 13: 978-0-525-42384-3. This book is for grades 4 and up, or ages 9 and up, depending on reading level (3 stars out of 4).

I am always happy to see adult authors cross over into YA literature. Although success is not automatic any time an author chooses a new venue or genre, more established authors like Francine Prose, Carl Hiassen, and in this case, John Grisham, risk less than others because their name recognition helps to sell books. I admit that the main reason I picked up Theodore Boone, Kid Lawyer is because John Grisham is the author. Mr. Grisham is the king of the American legal thriller, and although I do not read much popular fiction due to time constraints, I confess to being up until 3:45 am on a school night many years ago reading The Firm until my eyes blurred, dying to know how it ends. Not since the Dan Brown phenomenon have I felt that kind of excitement about a bestseller. Although his first foray into YA is not perfect, Mr. Grisham does a capable job of making the intricacies and intimacies of the legal world refreshingly understandable and sensible.

Theo Boone is only 13, but he already feels he is at the top of his game. His only desire in life is to become a trial attorney, and he knows every lawyer, judge, and police officer in town. Theo also dispenses legal advice like Encyclopedia Brown, and he is a good resource to have if your sister or dad get into a little trouble. However, when the biggest murder case in 50 years engulfs the town, Theo inadvertently gets involved when a friend, the relative of an illegal immigrant, reveals that he may have previously unknown information relevant to the case. Theo may be in over his head when he is sworn to secrecy but desperately feels the need to see justice served: “How could it be that he, Theodore Boone, knew the truth about the Duffy murder . . . The town’s biggest crime since something bad happened back in the 1950s, and he, Theo, was suddenly in the middle of it” (119). Theo must seek help from normally unreliable sources, most specifically his estranged and mysteriously disgraced Uncle Ike, and he is desperate to find a way to keep his word and ensure that a guilty man does not walk free. However, the menacing Omar Cheepe, working for the defense, seems to be lurking around every corner, spying on Theo and everyone else.

John Grisham has a way of making the law come alive. In his nimble hands, the legal system is an orderly, logical, time-honored system that usually dispenses justice. I admire and appreciate Mr. Grisham for bringing that gift to YA literature; I am confident that legal hounds of all ages will appreciate the style in which Mr. Grisham personalizes and simplifies the law. I love that element of this novel, almost certainly the first in a series. However, there is a down side to the protagonist. Theo Boone is a great kid. He’s the judge’s favorite, he’s the teacher’s favorite, he’s the secretary’s favorite, and since he is an only child, he is his parents’ favorite. Although it’s great to be a great kid, the bar seems to be set a bit high in Theodore Boone, Kid Lawyer (all puns intended!). Perfect heroes who always feel the pressure of their futures bearing down on them place too much pressure on students just learning how to perform well. I regret that Theo Boone has to overachieve so much, has to work so hard at being liked, has to try so hard to be accepted, all so that he does not lose himself. His parents are successful attorneys, so his desire to pursue that profession is unsurprising. But Theo is driven by other desires and motivations, and I would feel better if Mr. Grisham took more time in this first novel to fill in his protagonist a little more. What, I wondered throughout the novel, is the side of Theo he does not show to his family, friends, and mentors? However, despite Theo’s imperfections, I enjoyed Theodore Boone, Kid Lawyer. It moves quickly enough, the action is satisfying, and the characters are likable. With healthy and clear explanations of basic law and courtroom protocol and concepts, it will bring the legal system to life for many young people, and our students deserve the right to understand the basics of the law; we all need it sooner or later.

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Schutz, Samantha. You Are Not Here. Push, 2010. 292 pages. ISBN 13: 978-0-545-16911-0. This book is for grades 8 and up, or ages 13 and up, depending on reading level. This book contains graphic situations and language (2 stars out of 4).

I have featured the chasm between guys and gals in this column before, and few if any discerning readers would argue that some books are targeted to males and some to females, while the remainder are targeted to the largest possible audience with money to spend. In my opinion, You Are Not Here by Samantha Schutz is clearly a “girl book.” The protagonist loves her tragic figure even though he does not satisfy her emotionally or socially, and I do not know why. When I was a teenager, you actually had to be nice to potential mates if you wanted them to like you and hang out with you. I am definitely from Mars, and that may contribute to my ignorance, but I think my lack of understanding says something about what people are willing to tolerate for the illusion of love. Annaleah sacrifices her friends and her life for an occasional rendezvous with an unpredictable (but charming and cute) guy who practically ignores her most of the time. Is that what we are reduced to? Is that social networking’s legacy? Is that the gnarled fruit the Blackberry has yielded. I sure hope not.

Annaleah and Brian would have ended up together—Annaleah is sure of it; well, almost sure. Their relationship, the first fully physical one for Annaleah, had its pros and cons to be sure, but Annaleah was sure she loved Brian, even though he seemed to treat her offhandedly at best; even though he excluded her from his life; even though he had no problem sleeping with her and then standing her up without proper explanation; even though Annaleah’s friends neither knew nor trusted him. Brian was practically a shadow to everyone but Annaleah, who had projected a whole life and future onto him. So Annaleah is devastated when Brian suddenly dies and leaves Annaleah with a thousand “what ifs.” What if they were meant for each other and now Annaleah’s fate and future have been shattered? What if Annaleah was wasting her time with a person who obviously showed no commitment to her? What if she can never love again? What if the grief, not able to be shared with anyone, never ends? What if her father never returns, and she can never resolve her relationships with anyone? What if her friends give up on her and move on without her? Although Annaleah acknowledges that she is a more experienced person due to her grief, she cannot help but define herself through the prism of hopeless love: “I don’t / have the energy to do anything besides watch TV, read, and visit Brian . . . Being alone somehow seems safer . . . My perspective is changed. / I don’t / think I can come back from that” (144). Annaleah must find a way to grieve and move on, or she will forever be mired in the malaise that seems to permeate every crack in her imperfect world.

Although in the past I had been wary of prose-poem novels, I was heartened over the last few years by such fine selections as Burg’s All the Broken Pieces and by Nelson’s Carver: A Life in Poems, so I am no longer afraid to read them. However, if the author chooses poetry as a medium, I expect the poetry to be tight and effective, and I was disappointed on both counts with Samantha Schutz’s new work You Are Not Here. Her use of concrete imagery to create setting and background was incomplete, so I never felt a true sense of place. I saw no particular reason to tell this story in verse, especially when it is neither pointedly descriptive nor freshly told. The narrator is believable as a depressed teenager distraught over the unexpected death of her occasional lover and even more occasional boyfriend, but I never get to know Annaleah well enough, because of the sparseness of full development that poetry invites, to know why Brian moved her so much; I thought he was a jerk from beginning to end. As a male reader, I was furious that Brian elicited so much grief from Annaleah that he did not deserve. Annaleah seems like an attractive, friendly, desirable young woman; why did she devote so much time to a loser? Is she trying to recreate her father in her life? Does she expect to be abandoned by Brian like her father abandoned her 15 years earlier? Does being cute really matter that much? Am I just being jealous? Like the proverbial question about how many licks it takes to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop, the world may never know. For the record, the fact that I do not think the book features effective, engaging poetry does not mean my students will not like it; I will recommend it to my Lurlene McDaniel crowd: older middle schoolers who are looking for a romance and don’t mind crying.

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