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.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Celeste's Harlem Renaissance by Eleanora E. Tate (4 out of 4 stars)--
I read Middle level fiction (grades 5-8) for entertainment, for insight into a genre or style, for familiarity with an author or writing school, and, of course, because it’s my job to buy, promote, discuss, and recommend the right books to the right patrons. I generally do not read YA fiction to learn. However, when a book delights me, sheds insight into all of those literary issues that interest me, and teaches me about some cool history, I get doubly excited. That was my experience with Eleanora E. Tate’s new novel, Celeste’s Harlem Renaissance. It is a fine piece of historical fiction that sent me both dreaming in my recliner about the height of the Harlem Renaissance and running to the library databases at ww2.pennsauken.net/pms to read about and appreciate the people, places and things Ms. Tate alludes to throughout the novel.
The year is 1921 in Raleigh, North Carolina, and Celeste Massey has a problem. Since her mother passed away, Cece has lived with her loving father and her mean, strict Aunt Society. When Dad gets tuberculosis, Cece must live alone with a woman she loathes or try to get her hip Aunt Valentina from Harlem to stay with her. Although she cannot pry her aunt from New York, Celeste is able to travel North to stay with her. Cece imagines Harlem to be full of sparkle and celebrity, with well-dressed sophisticates living in swanky mansions. After a fitful train ride, she arrives not to glittering lights, but to hard theater floors that need to be scrubbed. As she scrapes her knees that first night in the Big Apple, Celeste must face the pain that accompanies the adult realization that nothing is as it appears. Even names can carry a message or a deception: when Cece asks her aunt if she can shorten her name for convenience to Auntie Val, she replies, “‘Sure. But with an ‘i’—not ‘ie.’ Makes me think it’s fancier’” (59). Aunti Val has not been totally truthful with her Southern family, and Cece must pay the price. One of Celeste’s only consolations during her journey is her violin, which she names Dede after the African-American violinist and composer Edmund Dede. When she gets to play at an outdoor café and gain a tiny bit of fame (and money), Aunti Val is jealous: “She grilled me until I was sorry I had even mentioned it. I had thought she’d be pleased . . . She was something all right, but pleased wasn’t the word” (161). Aunti Val clearly has some people-skills issues. When Aunt Society gets sick and becomes so ornery that no one will approach her, Celeste must face a difficult decision: stay and pursue her dream of becoming a doctor, or return to her friends, who she misses, and her Aunt Society, who she fears.
It is a pleasure and a privilege to hang out with Celeste as she grows up. Her world is full of color and music, even when it has to come only from her soul. Cece has an irrepressible spirit that blossoms away from the shackles of the segregated South. She grows to understand that all of the important challenges and obstacles are not imposed on her from White or Black society, but generated from within. She learns to take responsibility for her actions and to understand the consequences of her decisions not from a textbook or parental lecture, but from life. She starts out crawling, but she eventually stands tall because she stood up herself, and she must learn to temper her will so that others may share in her journey. Celeste’s Harlem Renaissance by Eleanora E. Tate is a beautiful literary chord that will resonate empowerment in all young minds; Celeste’s indomitable spirit became the force that survived the Depression, defeated fascism, and made our future possible.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Cracker! The Best Dog in Vietnam by Cynthia Kadohata (4 stars out of 4)--
When I see a book dealing with the Vietnam War, a series of images and ideas flood into my mind: all of the politics, controversy, damage, death from that difficult time overcome my mind. A less talented writer may focus too much on political history and popular sentiment and write a bad novel. Fortunately, Cynthia Kadohata is an excellent writer, so her latest offering, Cracker! The Best Dog in Vietnam, is simply a great story that just happens to take place overseas. Even more fortunately, you do not have to own a dog to appreciate this one, and for those readers who are still drying their eyes two years later after reading Kira-Kira (I just put away the tissues last month), it does not have the piercing sadness and wrenching emotional impact of her well-deserved Newbery Award-winning novel; it’s just a good, old-fashioned adventure story.
It is the late 1960s. Willie knows he has to give up his German Shepherd, Cracker, because his new apartment complex does not allow dogs, but he cannot stand the thought of leaving her. However, when his father mentions that they need dogs to do important work helping soldiers in Vietnam, he realizes that Cracker’s destiny might be to save lives, and he agrees to give her up. Private Rick Hanski has never owned a dog before, but he is ready to try. With Willie, Cracker’s biggest decisions during the day were: “. . . whether to sleep in the bedroom or the boat room (she wasn’t allowed in the living room) and whether to sneak a pee somewhere that Willie’s parents wouldn’t find it (she did this only once, but she thought a lot about it)” (11). Now, her days are filled with special training: bomb sniffing, trap detecting, and people finding. At first, Rick thinks that Cracker is not as smart or talented as the other dogs, and he curses his bad luck for being placed with an inferior animal. But Rick learns in time that Cracker is not inferior, just wary. When she begins to trust Rick, a change occurs: “The more Rick trained, the more he started to feel that Cracker was reading his mind or something. Of course, he would never say this out loud, unless he wanted to be the laughingstock of the squad” (57). After Cracker and Rick begin to distinguish themselves, they are chosen for special assignments, and Cracker is not only charged to protect Rick; she becomes responsible for an entire company of 150 soldiers. Throughout all of their adventures, they stay true to their vision of helping America battle a war they are assigned to fight, and saving lives.
In the hands of a lesser novelist, Cracker! The Best Dog in Vietnam could have been a heavy-handed lecture on the evils of war, boring everyone with 40-year-old issues to which you simply cannot relate. Instead, Ms. Kadohata has written an excellent adventure yarn that just happens to take place during the Vietnam War. She cleverly avoids politics except for one scene in which a civilian yells at Rick in the airport, and she keeps the book where it should be: grounded in reality, but dwelling in the imagination. Kadohata writes such a convincing and realistic internal dialogue for Cracker, I hardly knew she was a dog until she started taking about her nose, her primary information gathering sense. You do not have to be a dog lover to enjoy Cracker! The Best Dog in Vietnam by Cynthia Kadohata, just a book lover. It helps if you like excellent writing as well.

McNamee, Eoin. The Navigator by Eoin McNamee (2 1/2 out of four stars)
Fantasy has come a long way since being revitalized (again) by the Harry Potter series. Not only have our students returned to the classics in the genre (i.e. The Chronicles of Narnia series and The Lord of the Rings series), but they have demanded new material (i.e. The Golden Compass, Gregor the Overlander) and authors have delivered. Many fantasy plots, like all of those mentioned above, are epic, sweeping sagas that take several books to develop and resolve. Although The Navigator by Irish author Eoin McNamee contains a complete plot, it is clear from the long period of setting and character development in the first hundred pages of the novel that this series will last a while.
In this latest fantasy offering, protagonist Owen begins the novel under a shadow. His father is the victim of an apparent suicide and his mother has lost her will to live after her husband’s death. Feeling lonely and alone most of the time, he spends much time at a private place in the woods he calls the Den: “The floor was earth and the walls were a mixture of stones and soil. Owen had found it two years ago while looking for chestnuts . . . He spent as much time as he could at the Den” (6-7). Owen’s life and reality itself are shattered when the enemy of Time, known as the Harsh, alter reality and cause time to flow backwards to an era before humanity so they can have the world to themselves. Owen finds himself (at first) an unwitting partner to the Resistors, a group that has spent History battling the Harsh and thwarting their inhuman plans. It is an extreme challenge, but Owen is up to it, and with new friends Cati and Wesley, he commits to the cause and must play a key role in the restoration of normal existence. Ironically, as his life becomes more dangerous and threatening, Owen finds and knows himself better than ever: “He missed his home and his room, and he missed his mother . . . He realized too that he felt fitter than ever . . . And when he looked in the mirror of the old dressing table he saw a fuller, more cheerful face looking back at him” (110). Owen finds a home among the Resistors and prepares for the great challenge that faces all of humanity.
If you like fantasy, will like this novel. It has all of the elements you have come to expect: unusual humans with special skills, supernatural villains who appear larger-than-life, alternate realities that confound the mind, and characters who find more inside of themselves than they expected. I grew impatient with this book because it started slowly and built gradually until the action finally started occurring. Sometimes the payoff is less satisfying when it takes too long to get there. I admit a bit of boredom during the first hundred pages. However, despite a slow build-up, The Navigator by Eoin McNamee is a cleverly plotted and conceived novel that will appeal to many of you, and like many other series, its unique universe will be around in sequel form for a while.