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.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Revolution Is Not a Dinner Party by Ying Chang Compestine (3 1/2 stars out of 4)--
When President Nixon visited China in the early 1970s, I remember imagining the exotic, exciting country that he toured, with the splendor of the Great Wall, the mysteries of the Forbidden City, and the New York-style buzz of Shanghai swimming in my prepubescent brain. I watched the news with my dad every night and marveled at the pictures of a country that seemed a million miles away. After reading Ying Chang Compestine’s first novel Revolution Is Not a Dinner Party I now understand that there was another China present in the 1970s not viewed by the visiting Americans, marked by pain, hunger, human rights violations, and lack of personal freedom not shown on television. Ms. Compestine successfully paints a picture of a volatile Maoist China always teetering on the edge of turmoil as it lumbers painfully onto the world stage.
Ling is almost nine and living a happy, reasonably carefree life in central China of the early 1970s. Ling’s father teaches her English and often longs for America, symbolized by a picture of the Golden Gate Bridge on their wall given to him by an American colleague: “[Dr. Smith] had invited Father to go to work in a hospital near the Golden Gate Bridge. But Father decided to stay and help build the new China” (14). Her parents work at the local hospital and they have a comfortable apartment and lifestyle. However, Maoist revolutionaries gradually take over the region, and after a shady political officer named Comrade Li moves into a section of their apartment, their lives gradually become more difficult. Ling’s parents are branded as bourgeois and Ling is suddenly lonely: “When I tried to talk to [my best friend Hong], she whispered, ‘I don’t want to be called a bourgeois sympathizer,’ and ran away” (77-78). Ling grows up in an increasingly hostile and alien world dominated by Chairman Mao, a Big Brother-type figure who the Chinese must worship to advance in society, and who they must at least tolerate to survive. When Dr. Chang is finally taken to prison for antirevolutionary activities, Ling envies the life of even the mice in the ceiling: “I envied the baby mice. They must have felt safe and happy to be with their parents. Tears rolled down my face” (147). As the revolution comes to a critical juncture, news is leaked out that Ling’s father is nearby, and she goes off to search for him and some stability and understanding in her life.
It is not surprising that Ms. Compestine has written several picture books; this novel works best as a portrait of an era seldom discussed or displayed in American literature, YA or otherwise. The author’s use of a simple, clearly autobiographical narrative poignantly presents a child’s innocent perception of major political movements she does not understand swirling around her life. The vocabulary is appropriate for the intermediate/middle level, and the descriptions feel authentic. Although certain scenes, like Ling’s 3:30 AM excursion with her mother to try to buy meat, show Ling maturing in a harsh world, Maoist China is the main character that undergoes the tragic journey in Revolution Is Not a Dinner Party by Ying Chang Compestine. It is chilling but satisfying to watch Ling and her homeland grow up painfully, but together.

Elijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis (2 1/2 stars out of 4)--
After reading the two excellent books Bud, Not Buddy and The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963, I expected great things out of Christopher Paul Curtis’s latest novel, Elijah of Buxton. If it were about 100 pages shorter and a bit more focused, I would be singing its praises right now. However, it is a good novel that you should read, and some fans of Mr. Curtis’s other novels will recognize his funny, experienced, and wisdom-soaked voice in every one of Elijah Freeman’s thoughts.
Eleven-year-old Elijah Freeman is the first freeborn person of African descent born in the southern Ontario settlement referred to as the Elgin Settlement at Raleigh in Canada West, but commonly known as Buxton. His main concern is his disposition, which his mother calls “fra-gile.” When Elijah runs home scared after being told a tall tale, his mother tries to toughen him up: “‘Acting that way don’t look good on no child old as you . . . get control of yourself and quit being so fra-gile’” (9-10). Elijah and his friend Cooter go to school and live normal lives for boys in 1860. The antagonist, a so-called preacher named the Right Reverend Deacon Doctor Zephariah Connerly the Third (the first four titles are dubious at best), shows his true colors when he almost sells Elijah to a flim-flam artist at a shady carnival that Elijah would never be allowed to attend if his parents knew. The con man wants to buy Elijah, and the Preacher attempts to negotiate the dirty deed, even without guardianship: “‘The boy and I would be willing to travel with you for a while if you’re willing to make certain guarantees’” (146). Something is wrong about the Preacher, but he gets a chance to prove himself when he claims he can help one of the settlers purchase his family and have them transported up to Buxton. Although Elijah’s father has his doubts, they proceed with the plan anyway.
Elijah of Buxton is a well-written book, but I believe it starts too slowly. Newbery-award-winning author Curtis attempts to use a series of vignettes of the town to create an emotional attachment to Buxton and its inhabitants. However, the novel meanders in the beginning and I yearned for a more traditional plot with a conflict, tension, climax, and resolution. I appreciated the local color and flavor of the settlement that Mr. Curtis attempts to establish, but I question whether my students will be as patient and appreciative. The exciting plot finally comes, but the novel could have begun on page 103 at the carnival and still been effective. Curtis demonstrates that he is an emotional and moving writer, and there is definitely at least one good cry and a few good laughs in Elijah of Buxton, but Curtis may have lost his edge a bit with this one. However, it is an effective portrait of an important historical time and place, and for the last 200 pages, a satisfying and exciting read.

Football Genius by Tim Green (3 out of 4 stars)--
Special Note: This book features Michael Vick as a positive figure and role model. Mr. Green wrote this book before Michael Vick was convicted of illegal activities and this fact should not be held against the author.

Former NFL player Tim Green clearly knows his football. Every page of his first YA novel, Football Genius, oozes with insider knowledge. Many of us remember the first lesson in Writing 101: “If you’ve never been to Paris, don’t write about the Eiffel Tower.” Nobody wants to read a sports book by someone who has not played the sport; the author played eight seasons with the Atlanta Falcons, and his experience is evident. Green, author of over a dozen adult books, has turned his attention to literature for middlers, and although this first offering is not perfect, it is a fast-paced and enjoyable read.
Twelve-year-old Troy White has a special gift, but no outlet for his talent. He can, after watching a few plays of any football game, predict with complete accuracy the next offensive play. He and his friends Tate and Nathan play on a little league football team together. He would like nothing more than to be the savior to his beloved (but hapless) Atlanta Falcons, not only so he could shut the mouth of his rival, local starting quarterback Jamie Renfro, but also so he could prove that he can stand on his own without the father who left before he was born. When Troy insults Renfro’s skills (his rival’s dad happens to conveniently be the coach), Jamie fires back with the one retort sure to strike a nerve: “‘At least I have a father’” (8). When Troy’s mother lands a job with the Falcons’ public relations department, Troy gets the opportunity to go to the game, but his hubris gets in the way, causing him to make a scene on the sideline:
“‘Coach, I know what they’re going to do!’ Troy yelled, struggling to get free . . . Two security guards in yellow jackets dashed over the yellow lines into the bench area and grabbed Troy under the arms” (45). After Troy gets his mom fired, he begins a mission to help his team, despite all of the obstacles. He enlists the aid of aging defensive star Seth Halloway by demonstrating his talents during a Georgia Tech game on television: “‘Holy crow,’ Seth said, ‘you’re like a football genius . . . Kid, do you know what this means?’” (90). But neither person knew how difficult it would be to get Troy’s message and his gift to the right people, and the nasty Coach Krock, defensive leader and the next in line if the current head coach fails, blocks every attempt to improve the defense. They need to get to the owner, Mr. Langan, to plead their case.
This novel is fun to read and satisfyingly accurate in its portrayal of football terminology and insight. Mr. Green’s straight-ahead style suits this story well. The plot grows thinner and more improbable as the story progresses, and the subplot involving the head coach and his nasty assistant is too reminiscent of movies like Major League and The Natural, but the reader wants Troy to succeed despite his character flaws, and it is easy to perceive Troy’s stubbornness as determination, and his hubris as righteous indignation. Although the minor characters are a little too flat, all of the familiar figures are present: the over-protective mom; the wise elder (granddad); the tough-but-fair executive (Mr. Langan); the over-the-top coach and his bratty son (the Renfros); and the friends (Tate and Nathan) who will do anything to help, even if it means personal danger. The Spy Kids generation probably will not raise as many objections to this formulaic crowd-pleaser; they’ll simply enjoy the ride and cheer at the appropriate spots.

Schooled by Gordon Korman (3 out of 4 stars)--
Prolific YA author Gordon Korman’s new novel, Schooled, is a very likable and fun morality fable that capitalizes on every middler’s nightmare: feeling out of place in a new environment, a new body, and a new way of thinking. Taking a page or three from Robert Heinlein’s modern classic Stranger in a Strange Land, Korman changes the protagonist’s home from Mars to a commune named Garland Farm, and the obligatory crusty-but-benign mentor is Rain, a hippie grandmother who thinks Earth Day was the last important American historical event. Although the story seems a bit improbable, the young people are very easily recognizable and appear at almost every middle school, or at least on the television shows about middle school. Alienation is an important theme in YA literature, and Korman handles it with humor and grace.
Capricorn Anderson (call him Cap) has just tumbled into a strange and wonderful world called the Present Day. For all of his life, Cap has lived on a commune, completely out of touch with the outside world. He has always been capably homeschooled by his hippie grandmother Rain (his parents died in the Peace Corps) , but when Rain is injured, Cap must attend Claverage (dubbed C Average by the students), the local middle school. Cap is not prepared for the pitfalls that await him: “‘I don’t like it out there . . . It’s too crowded. People dress funny; they talk too fast, and all they’re interested in is things! Cell phones and iPods and Game Boys and Starbucks. What’s a starbuck?’” (20). Cap is taken in by Mrs. Donnelly, a former member of the commune, and he is immediately struck by culture shock when he meets her sixteen-year-old daughter, Sophie, the first girl he has ever met up close: “I had seen beautiful girls on book jackets, and even noticed some from a distance when Rain and I had gone into town for supplies. But this was the first time I’d ever met one . . . It sure was a strange and complex world outside Garland” (25-26). As Cap interacts with his new fellow students, several people try to manipulate him (the cool kid, the nerd, the jock; all of the usual suspects). He is “elected” class president, a title usually reserved for losers who are mocked for the entire year, but Cap adds status to the position through endless patience and courtesy. He drives a bus to the hospital in an emergency and saves the driver, getting arrested and becoming an urban legend in one action: “They were treating him like a criminal–which I guess a school bus hijacker technically was . . . We watched in awe as they hauled him roughly to his feet” (76). When Cap tries to plan the school dance, he faces his greatest challenge, and potentially, the end of his reign as class president and pleasant distraction.
Schooled is a funny and poignant novel that will reach much of its audience. Although the idea of a stranger in a foreign land is not a new premise, Cap’s naiveté will feel fresh because the foreign land is here, and readers will be amazed simply by the notion that some teenager in the world has never watched TV, listened to the radio, or surfed the internet. Cap’s success in a hostile environment is hard-fought and deserved, and it serves as the moral high ground for the other characters (and readers). The easy-to-follow narrative style, entering the mind of a different character each chapter, helps to move the story briskly and give the reader a personal view into the changes that the characters experience after interacting with Cap. Although the ending is too pat and neat, it is moving, and the reader has already been touched by then. The resolution is less important than the journey, and Cap’s journey is worth sharing.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

A Crooked Kind of Perfect by Linda Urban (4 out of 4 stars!)--
I rented a movie recently called Little Miss Sunshine about a girl who wants to compete in a kids’ beauty contest. For those of you who haven’t seen it, the movie is at times very funny, but it is at times dark comedy at best. Thankfully, A Crooked Kind of Perfect by new novelist Linda Urban does not contain the morbidity and questionable behavior of Little Miss Sunshine, but it does share the award-winning movie’s most important themes: being different in a world of conformism, living with and dealing with dysfunctional family members, and growing up in a world that cannot be planned and predicted.
Zoe Elias is almost 11, and her dream is to play the piano at Carnegie Hall. But things do not always go as planned for Zoe, and the piano her dad was supposed to buy becomes an organ, the Perfectone D-60. Mrs. Elias is a state controller and is hardly ever around. Mr. Elias has great trouble around people and has a form of autism or other social disorder that disallows him from comfortably leaving home and interacting with people: “Dad is not supposed to go shopping by himself, but sometimes he gets all worked up about how he should be able to go shopping like everybody else. And then he gets to the store and there are lots of people around and if it is noisy or there are flashing lights . . . my dad gets real jittery” (14). The organ comes with six months of lessons from Mabelline Person (“pronounced Per-saaahn”), which is better than using the paper keyboard her last teacher gave her, but not by much. When Zoe loses her best friend to a richer, more popular girl, she must bear the ultimate insult from her former friend: “‘You can sit with us until you find a new best friend if you want’” (29). Just when Zoe feels loneliest, however, she discovers awakening adolescent emotions and an attraction, or more like the beginning of an attraction, to another loner, Wheeler Diggs, who befriends Zoe’s father because of his family’s dysfunction: “I laugh again . . . Wheeler laughs, too . . . And Wheeler’s laugh sounds like singing” (172). Zoe can not achieve her dream of becoming a prodigy like Vladimir Horowitz on the Perfectone D-60, but she does earn the right to compete at the Perform-O-Rama and gauge her skills against other organists if her dad can overcome his phobias long enough to drive her there.
I enjoyed A Crooked Kind of Perfect on many levels. It addresses an important theme in current realistic fiction, parental mental illness, with grace and humor, and although therapy does seem conspicuously absent in Leo Elias’s life, the reader never feels danger from him, only a healthy amount of frustration and compassion. Ms. Urban speaks in a very authentic 10-year-old voice, and like one of my other favorite female protagonists, Gilda Joyce, Zoe is all at once funny, clever, pathetic, hyper, thoughtful, and histrionic, just like almost every other middler I teach. Finally, the message of the book, that feeling different is OK, that working towards a goal has value regardless of the goal, and that the journey to adulthood is made in baby steps that only make sense in hindsight, hits home and resonates with the reader. I look forward to more novels from Linda Urban; A Crooked Kind of Perfect isn’t perfect, but it’s close.