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.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Rinaldi, Ann. The Ever-After Bird--3 out of 4 stars
Anyone who thinks ornithology is a quiet, solitary, placid hobby has never read The Ever-After Bird by New Jersey’s own Ann Rinaldi. This engaging and moving Underground Railroad tale plunges readers into an odd world of gentility and savagery as Ms. Rinaldi presents the pre-Civil War South in all of its fractured elegance and poorly-masked hypocrisy while portraying not only the commitment to freedom that saved the United States but also the transformative ideals and images that could sway almost anyone to the abolitionists’ side.
CeCe McGill is a lonely 13-year-old growing up in challenging times. Her widowed father seems more interested in helping runaway slaves than in raising CeCe, and she resents his choice of ragged strangers over his flesh and blood: “I couldn’t understand him risking his life for all those negroes who came to our door in the middle of the night looking like something the cat dragged in” (3). When Mr. McGill is killed in a dispute over some runaways under his protection, CeCe is sent to live with her Uncle Alex and Aunt Elise in Ripley, OH. Uncle Alex is a doctor and naturalist painter about to embark on a quest to find and paint the extremely rare scarlet ibis, also known as the ever-after bird, the bird that slaves believe will set them free if they see it. But Uncle Alex’s true passion, like his brother, is abolitionism. When he travels to spot and paint (and kill if necessary) birds on Southern plantations, he also assists slaves: “‘I offer them advice on how to escape. I map out their route north and tell them where the safe houses are . . . Sometimes I give the slaves small sums of money for the trip’” (49). Although CeCe thinks the abolitionists’ cause is too risky with too little reward, her greatest challenge may come from Earline, Uncle Alex’s African-American assistant. Earline resents CeCe’s presence because she fears the loss of Uncle Alex’s attention, and CeCe considers Earline “uppity” because she has never been close to free African-Americans and Earline’s independence is alien to CeCe. Uncle Alex advises CeCe to work with Earline because they may need each other more than they realize: “‘The day may come . . . when you have to defend each other’” (70). When Earline falls for their white driver and they are caught together on a Southern plantation, CeCe must decide her priorities and make the most important and potentially painful decision of her life.
Some novels depend on rich characterization and imagery for success; others simply present a solid plot, capably written. Ann Rinaldi’s latest effort belongs to the latter category. This is an important and moving story, and students will appreciate its brisk movement. Although the characters are not vividly presented, this does not detract from the power of the story; they still say and do what they need to in order to move the story forward. The Ever-After Bird is an effective novel that demonstrates the potential for goodness and positive change under duress, and it demonstrates how far race relations have come as it suggests how far we still need to go to make lasting peace with each other.

Fleischman, Sid. The Entertainer and the Dybbuk--4 stars out of 4!
Books like The Diary of Anne Frank and Marcus Zuzak’s The Book Thief (2006) paint a poignant but chilling portrait of the Nazi movement and the horrors inflicted by it. This appropriately solemn tradition of documenting atrocities so history does not forget them makes Sid Fleischman’s new morality tale, The Entertainer and the Dybbuk, even more important. Well into his eighties, with an illustrious and prolific career behind him, Mr. Fleischman has tackled his most difficult project with masterful grace and style. Like Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s allegorical The Little Prince, this short novel packs a punch for young and old alike.
It is Europe in 1948, and Nebraskan Freddie T. Birch, aka The Great Freddie, is in trouble. He has nowhere to go and business is bad. Freddie is a ventriloquist who moves his lips, and his career is going nowhere, but he has nowhere to go: “Once the war was over, he’d stayed in Europe. He had no one to welcome him back home in Custer County, Nebraska. One-eighth Cherokee Indian, he had grown up an orphan” (12). Freddie’s life changes radically when he is possessed by a dybbuk, in this case a 12-year-old Jewish spirit named Avrom Amos Poliakov, who has some unfinished business on Earth four years after his murder by the Nazi SS “Jewkid” hunter Colonel Gerhard Junker-Strupp. The boy, never lacking in chutzpah, had saved Freddie during the war, and now he wants Freddie to return the favor: “‘Last week in Vienna, I saw a flyer with a picture of you and your dummy. I recognized the dummy. I decided you were the one to help me’” (24). The dybbuk helps Freddie’s career climb out of the gutter after Freddie realizes that the spirit can talk out of Freddie’s nose while he drinks water or tapes his mouth shut, but the price is often unsettling. Avrom Amos needs to have his Bar Mitzvah so he can become a man and exact his revenge on the monster who massacred thousands of the 1.5 million Jewish children exterminated during the Nazi regime. Freddie reluctantly agrees to the Bar Mitzvah despite rumors around town that he might be secretly Jewish; in fact, when his girlfriend Polly confronts him, he stops denying he is Jewish and cryptically admits, “‘Okay. You got me . . . I’m one of the chosen people’” (121). Avrom and Freddie must work together, however uncomfortably, to save Avrom from the purgatory in which he has been living since his murder in 1944, and revenge must be exacted on the SS colonel that robbed Avrom of his future.
Mr. Fleischman accomplishes the nearly impossible with this deceptively simple book: he gives readers a humorous holocaust story. Mr. Fleischman intimately understands the need to remember the horrific events of Nazi Germany, but as he states in his author’s note, the dichotomy of terror and hope is omnipresent when examining this painful period in history: “It has taken me a long lifetime of novel writing to finally feel prepared to grapple with the Holocaust. But what tale to tell? There was a horror story in every victim. At the same time, the indomitable Jewish sense of humor somehow survived” (178-179). The tale he tells is masterful and important; The Entertainer and the Dybbuk is a groundbreaking novel. Although several Yiddish references may be confusing to younger readers or readers unfamiliar with Jewish traditions, this historical fantasy/allegory belongs in every library and every Holocaust education program.

Rex, Adam. The True Meaning of Smekday--4 stars out of 4!
I do not read much fantasy, so as far as I know, every selection outside of Harry Potter is as witty, clever, wacky, and irreverently phantasmagorical as Adam Rex’s The True Meaning of Smekday. However, I doubt it. This goofy, funny, new, science fiction-fantasy hybrid manages to poke fun at many of the adults who will pay for it while it makes important statements about such disparate themes as female empowerment, racism, the trappings of fame and legend, and popular culture. Rex also mixes genres and occasionally includes photos from the book’s action and graphic-novel-type strips explaining various ideas throughout the book. While there is little actual suspense in the novel (it is clear from the start that humanity survives and that the protagonist will somehow save the day), I was on the edge of my seat wondering who or what Rex would lampoon next.
Gratuity Tucci needs to write an essay for school about Smekday, the holiday imposed on Earth by the Boov, a race who had invaded and left all within a year. The feisty eighth grader was eleven and lived with her wifty mom and a cat named Pig during the invasion. Through pictures, comic strips, and a wild narrative, Gratuity relates her adventure and the way she saved the planet: “This story starts in June 2013, about six months after the alien Boov arrived . . . At the time I lived in Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania was on the eastern side of the United States. The United States was this big country where everybody wore funny T-shirts and ate too much” (6-7). When Gratuity’s mom is abducted and a mole is implanted on her neck that ultimately gives the aliens control over her, Gratuity is on her own. Searching for her mom, she straps cans on to her feet so she can reach the car’s pedals, and she begins driving to Florida, where all of the humans were sent. Along the way, she meets an alien who has named himself J.Lo. They form a truce after Gratuity’s car breaks down and J.Lo is the only individual who can fix it (J.Lo is on the run from the Boov for different reasons). At that time, J.Lo explains why the Boov have renamed Earth “Smekland” with the wisdom of the conqueror: “Peoples who discover places gets to name it [sic]” (28). Gratuity sees with great clarity the next meaning of Smekday: that the conquerors, in their brilliant, bumbling, arrogant way, are no better than anyone: “The Boov weren’t anything special. They were just people. They were too smart and too stupid to be anything else” (150). As soon as people begin to grow accustomed to the Boov, a new and greater threat arrives: the Gorg, also known as the Takers, a sadistic and ugly race of clones who destroy planets for fun. Gratuity and her partner must gather up anyone who will help, including their Native American friend from Roswell, 93-year-old Chief Shouting Bear, who may own an actual UFO, and the members of BOOB, a group of middle school boys living in the tunnels under Florida’s Happy Mouse Kingdom theme park. Although politician Dan Landry believes the Gorg’s promises of peace, and Gratuity’s mom believes whatever Landry says, J.Lo and Gratuity know better, and they must act quickly before they are discovered and their plan to drive out the Gorg is ruined.
This tour-de-farce (all puns intended) kept me laughing and saying “Hmmm . . .” throughout the entire book. Students favoring New Media, genre-busting books like The Invention of Hugo Cabret will love the occasional comic strips and pictures, and adults will love the Toy Story-ish, there’s-a-joke-for-everybody feel of the entire novel (one of my favorites is when Gratuity is trying to explain to J.Lo the various hoaxes surrounding the Loch Ness monster when she finally realizes, “I was trying to explain to a space alien that there were no such things as monsters”). As a science fiction fan (I’m one of those rare readers who likes sci-fi but not fantasy), I also appreciated that Adam Rex is a sci-fi fan too: he even made a Babylon 5 reference! Also, the odd relationship between Gratuity and J.Lo is very reminiscent of Kirk and Spock (with a little Butch and Sundance thrown in), and their interactions are as much fun as the odd parallel world the author creates. The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex is a mixed-genre novel that everyone can enjoy. It has memorable characters, a wild but very readable storyline (if you do not take it too seriously), important themes of friendship, fair treatment of aliens and fellow humans, and an all-too-human attachment to pride, inequality, and fame that will resonate with readers long after the end of the novel.

Bloor, Edward. Taken--3 1/2 stars out of 4
Literature often mirrors society’s joys, fears, and problems. I have commented previously about the increase of YA books with divorced and/or dysfunctional parents, and although Edward Bloor’s new sci-fi thriller Taken certainly contains stepparents and even ex-stepparents, the effect of death and divorce is only a subplot in this intricate offering. As in adult literature, because there is never a shortage of worries and anxieties in middlers’ lives, there has never been a shortage of good dystopian literature. Concerns cover the full range of teen and pre-teen angst, from loss of individuality and creativity (Lois Lowry’s Newbery-winning The Giver); concerns about environmental disaster and apathy about the future (Rodman Philbrick’s underrated The Last Book In the Universe); and fears about the day that Facebook meets Big Brother (M. T. Anderson’s cyberpunkish Feed). Taken is a capable entry in this genre, featuring strong social commentary on the separation of classes by contrasting the messy arrogance of the insulated super-rich with the Edwardian servitude of the masses.
Charity Meyers has been kidnapped, but she knows the drill: stay calm, expect the ransom to be paid, and do not cause trouble: “Because that’s what they teach us to do, to cooperate . . . Currency can be replaced. I cannot” (9). Charity’s normal life as the eighth-grade daughter of a super-wealthy doctor in 2035 mostly consists of poking fun at other rich kids with her best friend Patience, attending satschool with other rich kids across the world, and staying almost exclusively inside The Highlands, a Florida housing development with armed guards, security cameras, and its own stores and services. She lives with the neo-Edwardian maid Victoria and the armed butler Albert, and occasionally sees her father Dr. Hank Meyers and her ex-stepmother, obnoxious reality show star Mickie Meyers (imagine a marriage of Oprah and Jerry Springer), who films the issues in her life and broadcasts them to the world with rave reviews: “She is currently vidding a series called Living with Divorce. Once she has wrapped that project up I expect her to move on. But you never know. She is relentless” (20). Charity eventually learns that she has been kidnapped by a teenager who calls himself Dessi (after Haitian rebel Jean Jacques Dessalines) and a cold-blooded “doctor” named Dr. Reyes. When the rescue begins, things go terribly wrong, Charity’s world is turned inside out, and she doubts she will survive. Her GTD (Global Tracking Device, to track kidnapped children) has been removed, and people in her life are dying: “I thought about my own life ending in an instant . . . I felt myself sliding down into self-pity, and fear and paralysis. I couldn’t let that happen!” (109). However, things are not as they appear, and Charity will have many more revelations and shocks before this portion of her life ends.
I enjoyed Taken by Edward Bloor for the same reason I like Margaret Peterson Haddix’s work: it moves quickly, it has dynamic plot twists (that are sometimes fantastic), and it offers hope for the future by the end. I also enjoyed Mr. Bloor’s playful but realistic altering of everyday language; i.e. “derma” for skin, “currency” for money, and “sat” in front of any word for “satellite. ” Charity makes some major decisions at the end seemingly without proper consideration, but the reader has to know that she will ultimately decide as she does, so the climax is not without power. Taken is a fine addition to any middle-level science fiction collection, and readers of Haddix and James Patterson should find this novel a satisfying ride.