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, February 23, 2009

Philbrick, Rodman. The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg (4 stars out of 4)
Funny books often contain unusual settings; the juxtaposition of content and setting is often the vehicle for the humor. Gennifer Choldenko’s Al Capone Does My Shirts takes place at Alcatraz, one of the most depressing locales of the last century, yet I laughed; Adam Rex’s The True Meaning of Smekday occurs during the potential end of the world, yet I laughed. In this same vein, the Civil War, usually the setting of somber books like Paul Fleischman’s Bull Run, is now the backdrop for Rodman Philbrick’s very entertaining new book, The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg. Mr. Philbrick has struck gold by combining the elements of adventure and suspense from The Last Book in the Universe with the strong character development of Freak the Mighty. The result is a clever romp both fun and serious simultaneously.
Not only is 12-year-old Homer P. Figg an orphan, but he is soon to be alone as well. Homer and his brother Harold lost their parents before the war, and they are now under the care of their Uncle Squinton Leach, “. . . the meanest man in the entire state of Maine. I tell a lie—there was a meaner man in Bangor once, that poisoned cats for fun, but old Squint was the hardest man in Somerset County” (8). When Harold pushes Uncle Squinton into a mud pile after Squint almost hit the starving Homer for eating a piece of bread from the pig slop, he is illegally sold into the army for profit, even though he is only seventeen: “That’s what Squint done with Harold, sold him like a slave for two hundred and fifty dollars, even though he’s white and supposed to be free” (22). Homer escapes and commits to finding his brother before he begins fighting, beginning the adventure of a lifetime. His quest begins by being kidnapped by two slave bounty hunters who want Homer to spy on wealthy abolitionist Jebediah Brewster so they can locate twenty runaway slaves and collect the reward. Homer is taken in by Brewster and is shown the runaway slaves, then instructed by Brewster to make an ethical decision: report back to the kidnappers Smelt and Stink, run away, or stay and be safe. When Brewster’s housekeeper complains that it is unfair to give a boy such a difficult decision, Brewster sighs but cannot help the situation: “‘I know,’ says Mr. Brewster, sounding regretful. ‘But boys are fighting this cruel war. Boys are enslaved, and boys own slaves. None may escape. All must decide’” (64). Homer’s decision leads him eventually to Gettysburg, where the battlefield is more frightening than any beating from Uncle Squinton or threat from kidnappers.
Rodman Philbrick has produced a winner with The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg. It is both fun and serious, both entertaining and thought-provoking, fantastic yet tinged with a healthy dose of reality. Most chapters cleverly begin with an anecdote from Homer’s past or from the history of the area, adding local color, while the story itself moves a mile a minute through the Northeast of the 1860s. Although such scenes as Homer the Pig Boy are funny, there are plenty of sobering moments to provide balance, such as the scene in which Jebediah Brewster confides in and trusts the oft-dishonest Homer with the welfare of twenty human beings. Since the protagonist is a semi-professional liar to begin with, the reader does not have to rely on the narrator for the truth; this sets the story free and allows Mr. Philbrick to have fun with Homer and his adventures. It simply does not matter whether the story happened as related by Homer; veracity becomes irrelevant in the face of a good old-fashioned yarn.

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Yee, Lisa. Absolutely Maybe (3 1/2 stars out of 4)
A pattern in current YA literature growing in frequency and scope is the functional child caring for, responding to, rebelling against, and/or rejecting the dysfunctional parent. Well-regarded books like Carl Hiassen’s Flush, Linda Urban’s A Crooked Kind of Perfect, and Kirkpatrick Hill’s Do Not Pass Go, to name a few, feature perfectly normal kids who are burdened by their parents’ inadequacies. Sometimes, like in Urban’s very funny novel, the dysfunction is not the fault of the parent (dad suffers from autism or another similar social disorder), and the child feels compassion for the parent’s plight. Other times, however, as in Hiassen’s and Hill’s novels, parents make avoidable mistakes that place their children in perilous situations, whether the danger is real, like Dusty Muleman’s gangsters in Flush, or perceived, like the shame Deet feels in Do Not Pass Go when his father is arrested for drug possession. Lisa Yee’s Absolutely Maybe features another teenager trying to be normal in the shadow of a dysfunctional parent, but it is not derivative; it is a fresh and fun ride that features just enough discomfort to keep the story tense and dynamic.
Maybelline “Maybe” Chestnut is a failure in the eyes of her mother, Chessy, who runs a charm school in Kissimmee, FL, that caters to girls like the Fantastic Five, the meanest, prettiest girls in school. Since Maybe prefers Goth-lite makeup and brightly-dyed hair to beauty pageant chic, she becomes the butt of the Five’s jokes: “As I brush past the Fantastic Five one of them says, ‘Look, it’s the beast!’ Someone else adds, ‘Her hair is green today. She’s not a beast, she’s a troll’ . . . As usual, my mother pretends not to hear them, even though their laughter echoes in the building” (20). Chessy is addicted to alcohol and marriage, and she is about to make her seventh mistake with creepy Jake Himmler, assistant manager at the local Piggly Wiggly: “Ýou’ve heard of serial murderers? My mother’s a serial marryer. It’s a disease” (13). Maybe survives her negative home environment with the help of her two best friends, Ted, at whose house she stays when Chessy is too drunk to care for her, and Hollywood, so named because he films everything and has been accepted to USC film school. The resourceful Maybe finds a way to survive at home until fiancé seven tries to rape her; when Maybe screams and Chessy interrupts the scene, she accuses Maybe of impropriety as Jake drunkenly tries to blame it on Maybe. One thing Maybe is sure of is that she cannot live with a rapist: “‘It was already torture before Jake showed up. Now it would be impossible to stay’” (38). When Maybe explains her troubles to Ted, she comes to a necessary decision: she must leave and find her biological father in California (the one man Chessy never married). Along with Hollywood, the three of them embark on an adventure that holds surprises for everyone.
Maybe Chestnut is a winning character, a girl I hope my students admire. She is far from perfect, but her spunk, spirit, and resourcefulness lift the story to a level that feels very comfortable for young people seeking greater empowerment in their lives. When she needs to leave a dangerous situation, she leaves. When she needs to eat other people’s food to survive, she eats other people’s food, as distasteful as it is (sorry for the pun). However, when she needs to succeed, Maybe has an energy and humility that are both refreshing and exhilarating. Maybe builds relationships surprisingly well given her poor parental model, and she is an unpretentious survivor in a world of wannabes. Ms. Yee handles the rape scene very well: it is disturbing and shocking but not graphic; the content is not inappropriate for middlers. Absolutely Maybe is not the most realistic fiction I have ever read, and the characters’ luck factor does seem to be unusually high, but I was able to overlook those shortcomings because Ms. Yee’s novel is a quick-moving, well-written tale of a likable young woman’s quest to find her heritage and forge her future.

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Wollman, Jessica. Tell Me Who (2 stars out of 4)
When I teach the Dewey Decimal System for the first time to my fifth graders, I stumble a bit at the 100s, Philosophy and Psychology. Philosophy is just a big word to most of my 10-year-olds, so I attempt to explain that they deal with philosophical issues all day: seeing a friend possibly cheat on a test and deciding whether or not to report it; giving part of your lunch to someone you know is hungry; sharing beliefs about religion, culture, media, etc. Jessica Wollman’s new novel Tell Me Who raises an intriguing philosophical dilemma: If you had a machine that knows who anyone will marry, what would you do with that knowledge?
Molly Paige is insecure about everything: her ineptitude on the basketball court, her lack of “development” as compared to other girls in her sixth grade class, and her fear that she will not get invited to the popular girl’s pool party, to name a few. Embarrassment seems to be an integral part of Molly’s life, i.e. when she accidentally scrapes her shoe against the floor at lunch and makes an accidental gas noise, even her best friend Tanna thinks she needs to change her diet; Molly gets a bit tired of her friend’s pushy advice: “I know she’s only trying to help, but all that advice gets sort of annoying. Especially since I never ask for it” (31). However, Molly’s biggest problem is her mean and demanding future stepmother, nicknamed The Claw because of her fingernails: “They’re long and Wolverine sharp; we’re pretty sure they can slice cans. The Claw paints them pink, red, or white. She says she chooses the color depending on her mood, but I don’t believe her. The Claw really has only one mood: nightmare” (14). Molly and Tanna become intrigued when they find an antique in Molly’s basement that seems to state who anyone will marry, but when they test it, they discover two disturbing facts: it predicts that The Claw will marry Molly’s dad, and that Molly will marry Glenn Borack, a fifth grader: “Here’s the thing: I know Glenn (Aaron) Borack . . . He’s short—really short—with dark hair that never looks clean . . . He’s the only person I’ve ever met who actually eats liverwurst. Happily” (53-54). While furtively doing everything they can to sabotage her father’s future marriage, Molly and Tanna decide to sell the machine’s services, christened the Ewmitter (a mix-up of “Who-Meter), for $10.00 a try, which opens up a whole other set of problems when people start getting uncomfortable information they do not want. Since, mysteriously, she is the only person who can operate it, Molly is faced with an ethical dilemma: Should she allow the Ewmitter to be used even if it causes pain?
The premise of Tell Me Who by Jessica Wollman is charming, and the issues it raises, ethical questions about truth and openness, peer pressure, normal pre-teen insecurity and fear, are all valid. It is possible that young readers will miss all of the loose ends in the story (for example, why can only Molly operate the Ewmitter?) and simply enjoy the fantastic elements of the novel. However, I was not satisfied. I had to overlook quite a bit to make this story believable, even without the Ewmitter. Molly is a true Everygirl, and I can completely empathize with her insecurities, but I cannot tolerate plot development as fantastic as the premise of the book. Molly’s character is a contradiction of crippling insecurity and boldness that feels contrived, and too many other minor characters, such as The Claw, Molly’s dad, and her new friend Julie, remain so underdeveloped that Molly’s actions do not seem appropriately justified. Tell Me Who by Jessica Wollman is an admirable effort, but it falls a bit short of its mark. However, tweener girls may still like it for the giggle factor alone.

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