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, June 18, 2008

Haddix, Margaret Peterson. The Missing: Book 1--Found (3 stars out of 4).
As a science fiction fan, I have read and enjoyed many of the major works in the field, and I have also viewed many of the genre’s best movies and television series. I am surprised that Margaret Peterson Haddix’s work has never been made into movies or television adaptations, because her work tends to be cinematic, if a bit derivative. I would never accuse Ms. Haddix of being too original with her story arcs (we have writers like M. T. Anderson for that), but she does write engaging fiction that, at its best, moves too quickly and smartly to allow the reader to think he or she may have read this type of story before. Her latest effort, Found, begins a new series titled The Missing, and it will become a hit for the same reason the Shadow Children series became popular: young readers have not read and seen this plot yet. Adult readers will instantly recognize the common, almost-too-familiar plot elements brought together for this series, but young readers, who did not grow up with the time travel adventures featured in television programs like Time Tunnel and Star Trek, or books like Asimov’s The End of Eternity, will find the ideas in this new work both intriguing and original. Although I feel déjà vu when I read it, Ms. Haddix is skilled enough that I must confess that I got just as engrossed in the story as my students will.
Thirteen years after a mysterious plane appears with 36 unclaimed babies, Jonah Skidmore and Chip Winston of Liston, Ohio, who happen to be adopted, start receiving threatening letters explaining that they are the “missing” and that they are in danger: “He [Jonah] knew it was just a prank—it had to be—but for just a second, staring at those words, You are one of the missing, he’d almost believed them” (22). Along with Jonah’s (not adopted) sister Katherine, Jonah and Chip begin investigating the strange occurrences, but the more they uncover, the more dangerous and threatening their situation becomes. Jonah and Chip both find information relating their adoption back to an FBI agent named James Reardon, but when they visit him for further information about their birth parents, they are threatened again; Reardon strongly discourages Jonah’s father from inquiring about getting their background through the Freedom of Information Act: “‘Sometimes there are . . . repercussions. I think your son’s documentation is in order, but perhaps if we were forced to revisit his case, we might discover some unfortunate discrepancies” (86). When Jonah goes to the bathroom in the FBI office, he is contacted by a mysterious individual who warns him that he is in danger, and when he returns to Reardon’s office, a file with information on Jonah, Chip, and the mystery that envelops them magically appears on the desk. Katherine manages to take some pictures of the contents, and they connect with the only living witness to the plane’s appearance thirteen years ago, Angela DuPre, and they gather other information about more of the 36 “missing” children. DuPre cannot fill in all of the background details, but she does add one important piece about their past. When Chip asks her if she knows where they came from, she responds enigmatically: “‘Not where, exactly,’” she said apologetically. “‘But I think I might have a pretty good guess about when’” (159). Not coincidentally, all of the “missing” children seem to live in the Liston area, so when a conference addressing the plight of adopted kids is offered by the county, Jonah, Chip, and Katherine all go, knowing it may be a trap, but needing answers. They get much more than they bargained for, and they must make a major decision that will affect the rest of their lives.
Think of Found by Margaret Peterson Haddix as the pilot to a new television series. There is much plot establishment and character development preparing the reader for the rest of the series, and although it starts slowly, it builds quickly towards the end of the novel as the conspiracy theory element, à la Francine Prose’s After, kicks into high gear. Series fans will have little trouble with the slow start; they are used to it. However, readers who like a little more kick to jumpstart their novels should be patient, because the excitement generated by the ending, featuring an intriguing (if not new) time travel element, will leave most readers anxiously waiting for the first actual episode of the story.

Reisfeld, Randi, & H. B. Gilmour. Making Waves;
Wasserman, Robin. Callie for President (3 out of 4 stars).
One of the joys of librarianship is the variety of styles in fiction, non-fiction, reference, periodicals, etc. that our patrons ask for. Popular items come and go, but I have noticed that series have a life of their own. For example, I did not even think Star Wars was popular anymore, but a few students continued asking me for books. I finally bought about 20 titles for a 5-6 school of 850 students, and I cannot keep them on the shelf! A popular series inspires fierce loyalty; I’m usually telling everyone about the new novel by Laurie Halse Anderson or Avi or Edward Bloor, but my students ask me when the new Darren Shan (Cirque du Freak, Demonata), Dav Pilkey (Captain Underpants), or Stephenie Meyer (Twilight vampire series) books are arriving. Based on the two books I read, Making Waves by Randi Reisfeld and H. B. Gilmour, and Callie for President by Robin Wasserman, Candy Apple books’ language and content are the antithesis of Cecily von Ziegesar’s Gossip Girl; they are younger and less racy, making them perfect for my 5th and 6th graders. Although they do not break any new literary ground, and they do occasionally contain overly-recognizable minor characters, this fresh new girls’ series is great for the pool, the beach, the couch, or any cozy summer reading spot.
In Making Waves by Randi Reisfeld and H. B. Gilmour, Emily, LJ and Jenna are beginning their summer swim club season when a new girl, Aubrey, emerges onto the scene. Spurned by the “popular” Sara Livingston and her Ice Queens, the bffs adopt Aubrey into the group as they spend their last summer before middle school begins. Aubrey seems great, with charisma and élan, but she always seems to disappear because of “emergencies” with her mom, even though she has been spotted in the city (New York). After she ditches Emily during a babysitting nightmare, Emily is just about fed up; she wants to like Aubrey, and she is dying to tell someone about the recent progress of her hoped-for hook-up with not-so-secret-crush Tyler, but she is torn: “Emily was bursting with the news. She wanted to tell Aubrey about it. But the moment she’d heard Aubrey’s voice on the phone, she realized how upset she was at her flaky friend” (112). With the important swim club talent show coming up, will Aubrey’s secret and erratic behavior destroy the girls’ friendship or strengthen it?
In Callie for President by Robin Wasserman, Callie Singer is bamboozled into running for Susan B. Anthony Middle School’s 7th grade class president versus Brianna Blake, the phoniest, meanest, richest, most ruthless girl in school. At first, the free-spirited, unself-conscious Callie jokes with one of her two best friends/campaign manager Max (Maxine) about competing against perennial incumbent Brianna and her band of middler sycophants, but when Brianna courts Callie’s other bff, artist Jacob Fisher (Fish), to make posters for her campaign, and Brianna outspends and outclasses every one of Callie’s and Max’s moves, an embittered Callie becomes determined to win by any means necessary: “I was going to prove to Fish that I was the better candidate—and the better friend—even if I didn’t have shiny blond hair and a big-screen TV . . . I was going to beat Brianna Blake. No matter what” (85). As the race drags on and Callie learns more about herself and her opponent, she is forced to make tough decisions that may affect more than just the election.
I will add the Candy Apple series to my Intermediate School (grades 5-6) collection; I will ask some of my middle school language arts teachers if they think the style will be appealing to older, lower readers. The central New Jersey suburban setting may be a bit too elitist for some readers, and not everyone will relate to these girls’ problems when they may be fighting for a regular pattern of good meals, a two-parent family, or a night without abuse or fear, but they are good, light fare to entertain readers, not challenge them. Both Making Waves and Callie for President feature sassy, individualistic, creative, clever girls who may not always win their battles but do win their wars, girls unafraid to speak their minds about everything from boys to ice cream to school to friendship. Many of the boys are presented very obnoxiously, but not entirely unrealistically (I can speak from experience—we do shoot milk out of our noses and belch musically more often than the fairer sex). Overall, the books are fun reads; I’ll recommend them widely to my female patrons.

Soto, Gary. Facts of Life: Stories (3 out of 4 stars)--
As state testing approaches, I give an annual presentation to my students on the essay-writing and reading tips and tricks I have accumulated throughout the years, and I always start my discussion of the essays by imploring my students to remember their audience. I advise them that if elephants score the essays, write about peanuts. Gary Soto knows this maxim well. He never talks above his audience, a potential insult to an adult but a great compliment to a YA writer. If a 10-year-old wants to read Dubliners or Goodbye, Columbus, she can get it at the public library, but most 10-year-old kids just want to read about 12-year-old kids like themselves, not angst-ridden, overly-complex adult children. In his latest short story collection Facts of Life, Mr. Soto once again displays his ability to be inside of the mind of a middler. In most of the ten stories contained in this collection, the characters simply and straightforwardly experience, as a regular feature of their lives, all of the awkwardness, joy, nervousness, excitement, paranoia, exultation, over-confidence, inspiration, and boredom we observe in our students every day.
In the best of the ten stories contained in this collection, the protagonists have small epiphanies that help to comfort them with the knowledge that they will grow up and everything will be OK. In “Identity Theft,” Ana Hernandez must confront the horror of a new girl with her exact name—and one who is better looking, smarter, more talented, and, ultimately, more popular, than herself. Now that she has been violated and her dignity has been wrenched from her, Original Ana wonders what else the new Ana can steal from her: “She was only twelve, but perhaps years from now when she got her first credit card, this new Ana would steal it . . . Then she swallowed with fear. She imagined having a baby that was claimed by the new Ana!” (48). It is only at Ana’s moment of realization about her identity and place in life that she can commence with her life. In “The Babysitter,” Rachel’s and Freddie’s evening becomes increasingly uncomfortable when a punk-goth babysitter named Keri ruins dinner, smokes, gives the kids coffee and sugar, dyes second grader Freddie’s hair orange and green, and plays loud punk music. At first, the normally reserved Rachael heartily disapproves, but somewhere in the middle of the mayhem, she admits to herself that letting go feels good: “But when they returned to the living room and Keri put Spew Face on the stereo, Rachael had to giggle and join in bouncing to the music. It felt fun; it felt wild” (77). But as uncomfortable as it usually is, Rachael can only march toward adulthood when she confronts her choices about what type of person she wants to be and she decides on her fundamental mores and values. In “D in English,” Ryan Gonzalez tries to avoid the consequences of his “D” by sneaking out and staying away from his house, but he finds reminders of his failure everywhere he goes. Ironically, when Ryan sees his mother at the grocery store having a nice exchange with a boy his age who helped her with her packages, he gets jealous, temporarily forgetting that he is avoiding her: “He narrowed his eyes at the boy and hurried away, ashamed—no, mad. Who was that kid, anyway? And why was the kid helping Ryan’s mother? That was his duty” (164). It is only at the end of the story, after witnessing a life-changing ceremony, that Ryan is ready to confront his own demons and begin the journey to becoming a successful, mature man.
Although all of the players in this collection are California Latinos, Facts of Life could chronicle the lives of any ten American middlers. Gary Soto presents universal themes easily, and characters’ normal feelings are somewhat amplified for dramatic tension but not ridiculously overblown like a manga novel. These short stories often present a naturalistic slice of life of the daily lives of regular folks who happen to be 12 and 13 years old. At first glance, many of the stories seem predictable and hackneyed, but sophisticated adult readers must remember that everything old is new again: stale to an English teacher or a librarian may be fresh to a 10-year-old. At second glance, this collection seems fresh enough to be tasty.

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Myers, Walter Dean. Sunrise over Fallujah (3 1/2 out of 4 stars)--
I remember when movies about the Vietnam War first appeared. It was the late 1970s, and movies like Platoon, Apocalypse Now, and Full Metal Jacket tried to make sense of a war that, as controversial and painful as it was, had finally ended. With time and perspective, we as a nation have come to terms with the Vietnam War. Walter Dean Myers, in his new novel Sunrise over Fallujah, attempts a more daunting task than that faced by Stone, Coppola, or Kubrick: write a story about the Iraqi War while we are still embroiled in it. As is usually the case with Mr. Myers, he does a masterful job, and his novel, set between February and June 2003, when we “won” the war, has as much tension and drama a middler can handle.
Although Robin Perry of Harlem, NY, is concerned about his father’s dissatisfaction over joining the armed forces during the beginning of the Iraqi War, Robin, who got the nickname “Birdy” from his army squad mates, is convinced he is doing the right thing, as he explains in a letter to his uncle Richie (the hero of Myers’ 1988 Fallen Angels): “I felt like crap after 9-11 and I wanted to do something, to stand up for my country. I think if Dad had been my age, he would have done the same thing” (2). Birdy is stationed in Iraq with the Civil Affairs corps, the organization that is supposed to assist with establishing goodwill and helping to rebuild Iraq. He must learn to get along with his new people in a strange and dangerous place, and he learns to rely on Jonesy, a blues-loving Southerner; and Marla, a big, tough ‘n tender woman who rides shotgun on their humvee, Miss Molly. Birdy finds out very quickly that fighting in Iraq takes a toll on more than just a soldier’s body. When an Iraqi teenager is shot for running away from soldiers, Birdy feels the agony of the moment: “The building across the street, the soldiers moving cautiously past them, were unreal through my tears. It was a horror movie badly out of focus, with only the images in my head crystal clear” (57). When Birdy encounters his first IED (improvised explosive device), set off by a cell phone, the randomness of the violence he has encountered makes him question everything he believes in. When Marla ask him if he’s OK, he is not sure anymore: “‘Not really,’” I answered. “‘I don’t know if there’s going to be an okay anymore’” (136). Regardless of their feelings and the violence that consistently visits them, Birdy’s squad must continue trying to help the people of Iraq while trying to discern who is friendly and who is the enemy, a daunting and deadly task.
Walter Dean Myers has written about war before, and it shows. One of New Jersey’s most prominent authors, Myers knows how to weave a tale that is both exciting and moving, and Sunrise over Fallujah is both. As Birdy’s squad members learn to be a family, they also learn to live with loss and pain as they struggle to move forward in an oppressive situation. Myers does not mind sharing the soldiers’ doubt about the war’s motivations and the spin machines built to support them. There is also a powerful tone of dramatic irony to the story as the characters discuss and deal with public perceptions of the war, that it would be easy, that we would be in and out, that we would just shock and awe them and be home in six months, that it would be just like 1991. Five years later, we know how sadly untrue those perceptions were, but the characters do not; this disconnect between expectations and reality drives the conflict home very effectively. Sunrise over Fallujah by Walter Dean Myers is a fine addition to all middle (and high school) shelves; despite a bit of foul language, the action is not inappropriate for young people who can handle a little blood and gore and who appreciate an almost Stephen Crane-like, naturalistic examination of the beginning of the Iraqi War. The ending is foreshadowed throughout the entire novel, but although it is predictable, it is not necessarily ineffective. Like in Fallen Angels, the characters must deal with the effects of war whether they expect them or not.

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