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, March 23, 2009

Fitzmaurice, Kathryn. The Year the Swallows Came Early (3 1/2 stars out of 4).
What makes a good book good? This is a question I frequently receive from my students, and it is not always an easy question, not because I do not know the answer, but because I know it with my background and sensibilities. Sometimes, I cop out and say, “Read it, and you can tell me whether it is good or not—we can even have a debate.” When I do try to explain, however, I rely on a few standard concepts: use of imagery, movement of the plot, depth of characterization, lyrical prose style, unique voice, etc. The Year the Swallows Came Early by first-time novelist Kathryn Fitzmaurice is a good book mainly due to use of concrete imagery, lyrical style, and cleverly-crafted plot development (with one exception near the end of the novel, but I‘ll forgive a new novelist for not trusting her characters enough to finish their tale without outside drama). Featuring a common theme of highly functional kids with dysfunctional parents, but adding a couple of twists that make it unique, Ms. Fitzmaurice has woven a memorable coming-of-age tale.
Eleanor “Groovy” Robinson is shocked the day her father is arrested in their small hometown, San Juan Capistrano, CA, and her eleven-year-old mind cannot understand how he could be in so much trouble that he must go to jail: “It was true Daddy seemed to get the kind of bosses who ended up firing him . . . But people hardly ever went to jail for getting fired, and he always found a new job sooner or later” (8). The real shocker is that it is Groovy’s mama who has called the police, and when Groovy cannot get answers from her mama about what is going on, she unsuccessfully resorts to playing one parent against the other: “‘Daddy would never do this,’ I announced. ‘He would tell me what’s going on’” (23). Dad has taken something valuable from Groovy and he has acted very irresponsibly. Simultaneously, Groovy’s best friend Frankie is having his own parental problems, as his mother and stepfather left two years ago, saying they would be back in a week. Frankie chooses to pop antacids rather than deal with his anger and frustration: “Frankie held anything that had to do with his mother so tight inside that it made him sick—nothing serious, but still, sick” (47). After Groovy learns about her great-grandmother and namesake Eleanor Robinson, Groovy drops her nickname and insists on being called by her original name (Groovy is Dad’s nickname for her). As Eleanor, she must find a path that leads to both fairness and love for herself and her mama (and Daddy), and she must also help Frankie as he works through his anger and attempts to proceed with his life. Their lives are intertwined, and they will succeed or fail together.
One of my sons saw me reading this book the other day and asked if I liked it. “Yes,” I replied, “the author’s prose is very lyrical.” My son asked what lyrical meant, because he said he only knew that word from song “lyrics.” I knew I was in trouble. “It means the language is pretty and the beauty of it adds to the story,” I said, knowing that definition was woefully inadequate. Fortunately, my son let me off of the hook and moved on, but I was left thinking about the lyrical nature of The Year the Swallows Came Early by Kathryn Fitzmaurice. Ms. Fitzmaurice weaves concrete images very gracefully through the plot, and simple objects like strawberries, dandelions, cucumbers, and antacids assume added significance. The “foodie” element is also fun for aspiring young chefs. The chapter titles effectively evoke the images to the point where I was eagerly anticipating how each title image would be utilized in the chapter. The author’s planning and sketching is obvious and welcome for a first novel, and although readers never quite learn some details, like exactly why Dad is in jail, they do not require the information to appreciate the characterization and seemingly effortless style. This is a moving and gentle novel featuring a small town with a special significance, but introducing problems and potential solutions that could occur anywhere.

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Rallison, Janette. Just One Wish (3 stars out of 4).
Although it is not easy, sometimes while reading I feel it is necessary to turn off my background and knowledge about YA literature and what makes it good and bad. Not every writer is interested in creating a lasting masterpiece that will inspire readers for generations; in our post-modern, media-spoiled, hyper-connected-yet-fragmented world, sometimes just telling a fun story in a few hours is just what our students’ doctors are ordering. Although some of my students want to read Octavian Nothing, frankly, more want to read Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Into this maelstrom of quality versus accessibility enters Janette Rallison and her new novel, Just One Wish. Ms. Rallison’s plot-driven tearjerker does not necessarily appeal to my high literary sensibilities, but it is the type of book—a little exciting, a little romantic, and a little funny—that many of my students ask for regularly.
Seventeen-year-old Annika Truman’s life revolves around her six-year-old brother Jeremy, but she doesn’t mind; in fact, she wants desperately to make him comfortable and happy on the eve of brain surgery that will determine whether he lives or dies. As the novel begins, Annika wins a conflict with an obnoxious eBay addict in a toy store over an action figure of the hot TV show Teen Robin Hood; after “borrowing” the toy from his cart, she dashes for the door: “My older sister, Leah . . . says I’ve wasted most of my adolescence playing sports, but this is obviously not true. Running through the store toward the checkout line was just like running for a touchdown, except the other shoppers didn’t try to tackle me” (8). When Annika hints that the action figure will show up for the holidays (or even sooner), Jeremy shares his real wish: “‘I wish the real Teen Robin Hood—the one on TV—would come and teach me how to shoot arrows’” (22). Annika suggests to her best friend Madison that they take a four-hour road trip from their home in Henderson, Nevada, to Burbank, California to speak to Steve Raleigh, the nineteen-year-old hunk who plays Teen Robin Hood. When Madison questions Annika’s sanity, Annika first offers explanation, then only determination: “I clutched the phone harder and tried to make Madison understand. ‘This is something I’ve got to do. If you can’t cover for me, let me know and I’ll call someone else’” (32). Improbable as it seems, with little money and no actual plan, but a lot of grit and perseverance, Annika and Madison must find a way to convince Steve Raleigh to come back to Henderson before the operation and fulfill Jeremy’s wish.
Like Maybe in Lisa Yee’s Absolutely Maybe, Annika’s luck level is a little high for my taste, but television is replete with rags-to-riches tales of go-getters who will not quit until their goals are attained. Like a good television show, action replaces characterization when the latter gets too thin. Sometimes full characterization is not necessary to a good story. I occasionally watch one of the Law and Order series with an auburn-haired woman and a curly-haired man. They both have quirks that make them unique, but neither is particularly well-developed; I know little or nothing about their lives outside of their detective work; I do not know their friends; I do not even know what foods they like or whether or not they prefer tea to coffee. However, millions of Americans like me are content to watch stories through their eyes and ears because we inherently trust that they will ultimately entertain us; intimacy is not required. In this context, Janette Rallison’s Just One Wish is a good after-school special. I do not watch them now, but I sure did when I was thirteen, and my students want them, especially but not exclusively reluctant readers. Maybe they will read Cynthia Kadohata next.

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