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.

Friday, May 08, 2009

I am going to change the structure of the column a bit for this review because I want to discuss three series by a new and exciting company: Orca Book Publishers. My students love Townsend Press’s excellent high-low (high interest, low reading level) Bluford High series, and while searching for high-low series similar to Bluford, I found Orca. According to Orca’s website, http://us.orcabook.com/, its books are targeted to reluctant readers in the childrens, middle school, and teen markets. The three series I purchased for my libraries, and that I cannot keep on the shelf, are: Orca Currents, books with contemporary themes, written expressly for middle-school students, ages 10-14, reading below grade level; Orca Soundings, contemporary fiction books targeted to teens ages 12 and up; and Orca Sports books, with exciting and fast-paced sports themes, targeted to ages 10 and up. The reading levels of all three series are 2.0 to 4.5, manageable for almost all readers 5th grade and up. All levels of readers are enjoying them at my two libraries, and the more I booktalk them, the more popular they become. Following are reviews from one of each of the three series mentioned above. All three books are recommended.
Brouwer, Sigmund. Scarlet Thunder.
Trenton Hiser wants nothing more than to be a film director, and at 17, he is getting a chance over the summer with his Uncle Mike, owner of a small film production studio. However, as he begins to work with Uncle Mike, he starts realizing that there is more to making a film than acting, shooting film, and editing. In fact, trouble erupts unexpectedly seemingly at every turn, beginning with some mice and an elephant that ruin a temperamental actor’s commercial: “That little episode had delayed the commercial three days . . . [The cost] had come out of Uncle Mike’s budget. He’d told me that his production company had actually lost money on the deal” (23). Trent is frustrated by the problems that keep popping up, but he is excited about their next project: filming the life of female race car driver Sandy Peterson. But that project is endangered by increasingly frequent production problems, and time is money for Uncle Mike; he stands to make a million if the film is on time, but he risks losing everything if he is late: “‘I agreed to the terms, because I need the bonus to get the next project I have in mind going. It’s one that could make my career as a director. I just never dreamed we would be late, so I figured it would be worth the risk’” (25). Trenton has big dreams, and they are riding on Uncle Mike’s success; Mike’s failure is Trenton’s missed opportunity. Together, they must figure out what or who is causing all of their problems and salvage the project before they are both ruined.
I enjoyed Scarlet Thunder by Sigmund Brouwer for several reasons: it was quick and easy to read, like a summer novel; it was exciting in the right way, because the action crept up on me until, before I knew it, I was totally engaged in the story; and it provided a lot of the background readers never see on television, enhancing the drama. Although I predicted the ending, I feel that the answers will be appropriately just out of reach of the target audience; if readers do figure it out, it can only increase their confidence and reduce their frustration levels, so they win either way. I am not a fan of stock car racing, but this Orca Sports selection drew me in like a popular movie novelization; it may not be the best writing in the world, but its audience will probably love it.

Denman, K. L. The Shade.
Safira Nelson used to love the water, but she spends part of her summer at swim camp and will not enter the pool. A frightening event eight months ago during a swim meet has made Safira scared of the water: “A lot can change in a moment. Especially if that moment was devastating. The sort of thing that yanks your identity” (4-5). However, Safira has bigger problems: on the eve of her sister’s wedding to a jerk that everyone (except sister Mya) dislikes, Safira sees a ghost that looks incredibly sad. Her best friend Trinity tries to help her discover, with a Ouija board, who the ghost is, but with no immediate answers, Safira grows more uncomfortable. Meanwhile, her sister Mya is making everyone miserable with her pre-wedding rants. When her fiancé Lino is rude to Safira and her friend again, Safira thinks she detects sadness in Mya’s demeanor: “Mya glances back at us, eyes narrowed, one side of her mouth pulled up into something that isn’t a smile. I can’t read her expression. It’s like she’s embarrassed, yet she’s daring us to notice” (28). As the wedding approaches, information about the ghost starts to appear, and there seems to be a connection between Mya and the ghost, who Trinity identifies as a shade, an image of the living, not the dead. Safira must put the pieces together, figure out how to prevent Mya from making a terrible mistake, understand why she has decided to never swim again, and have all of the answers before her sister says, “I do.”
Safira is a lot like many of the girls at my schools: she does not always understand how she feels or why she does what she does; she is uncertain about her past and her future; she has a kind, Gilda Joyce-like friend who pushes her to be more than she is, and she feels a bit jaded by the reality that she feels is stifling her growth. I like Safira, and I like her friend Trinity even more. Their personalities and relationship do not make The Shade by Canadian author K. L. Denman a perfect book, but they do make it an intriguing one. I think my students will appreciate the suspense of the story, and Safira’s voyage of self-discovery is the coming-of-age passion play that every middler experiences at some point in her young life. Also, Ms. Denman introduces some harmless occult and psychological elements, such as contacting the dead and realizing that water is the primary symbol of the unconscious, that appeal to our vampire-crazed readers. This is a fine short read for any middler.

Dekker, James C. Scum.
Megan Carter has been worried about her brother Daniel for some time, but she never imagined in her worst nightmares that the police would visit at 7:30 on a Friday morning with the most awful news imaginable: Daniel is dead. Detective Rossetti explains: “‘Danny was in a bar early this morning.’ It turns out he means three o’clock in the morning. ‘A couple of men came in and had words with him. One of them pulled out a gun and shot Danny. He died on the way to the hospital. I’m sorry’” (10). Dad and Megan seem to know of Danny’s indiscretions, but Mom seems to be shocked and shameful over the shooting, and those feelings leave her paralyzed: “My mother doesn’t go back to work. She doesn’t even get out of bed. My dad . . . makes her toast. He makes her sandwiches. He takes these things up to her on a tray and eventually carries them back down untouched” (25). No one at the bar will cooperate or say what they saw. There is a boy about Megan’s age named Titch who may be able to help, but whether or not the crime is solved, and regardless of the trouble Danny was in, the family must find a way to endure, even without total closure.
My students like these types of stories. Scum by James C. Dekker reminds me of an episode of CSI or Law & Order in which people try to solve a crime but also deal with the personal aspects of the situation; this story was heavy on the family survival aspect and light on the forensics, but both can be compelling. The plot moves reasonably quickly, and although the text is large and easy to read, the subject matter is not insulting to its audience; in fact, reluctant readers appreciate reading books about teenagers in trouble instead of reading 4th grade books simply because they match the students’ reading levels. The goal of this book, and other Orca books like it, is to encourage frustrated middlers and teens to read, and from my perspective, it is working. Teachers love the books as well, but the students will prove their value through a rapidly growing number of circulations. When I mentioned Scum to one of my students who has gotten hooked on Orca books, she said, “Oh, I just read that. I liked it. I think I read it in one day!” Any librarian who sees the light in a student’s eyes when she says she read her Orca book in one day cannot resist immediately calling his or her favorite vendor and making sure that, in September, there are plenty of Orca books on the shelf.

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Burg, Ann E. All the Broken Pieces (3 stars out of 4)
I admit it: I am a poetry snob. I buy all of the new, level-appropriate poetry books for my libraries; I support and recommend poetry to the students who like it (and some who do not); and I teach poetry forms, concepts, sounds, and devices; however, I must confess that my real love is the DWGs (dead white guys) many of us learned about in school. Give me Milton, Pope, Wordsworth, Tennyson, and a forest to walk in, and I am a happy camper. However, young people do not have the same relationship and history with poetry that I do, and they will never have the opportunity to develop their tastes without exposure to more than Shel Silverstein and Jack Prelutsky. Having enjoyed verse books like Virginia Euwer Wolff’s moving urban drama Make Lemonade and Marilyn Nelson’s insightful biography Carver: A Life in Poems, I decided to read All the Broken Pieces by new author Ann E. Burg. Employing straightforward free verse, Ms. Burg does a capable job in telling the story of a Vietnamese immigrant’s challenges in growing up in post-war, divided America.
It is the 1970s and the Vietnam War has ended. Matt Pin is one of the lucky children airlifted, by his biological mother’s request, out of the horror of war-torn Vietnam: “In choking mist / and wailing dust, / through sounds / of whirring helicopters / and open prayers, / I hear her. / You cannot stay here, / she says. / Here you will be like dust. / Bui Doi. / Dust of Life” (2). Matt is adopted by a loving American family, and although he is safe from the ravages of war, he harbors a tangle of feelings. He experiences guilt over leaving his mother and crippled brother, shame in having an American soldier (who abandoned his mother) he never met as a biological father, and fear that his American parents do not actually want him: “My parents say they love me . . . / But what about / my mother in Vietnam? / Didn’t she say / she loved me too? (67). When Matt tries out for the school baseball team, he encounters another roadblock, peer prejudice created by the bitterness and loss of an unpopular and deadly war: “When tryouts are over, / Rob Brennan bumps into me. / I fall into the bleachers. / When I stand up again, / he hisses into my ear, / My brother died / because of you” (48). Matt’s burden is overwhelming for an adolescent: he must come to terms with survivor’s guilt, find a way to accept two sets of parents separated by a gulf of fire and shame, and find a way to be an Asian-American boy and man at a time of high resentment against everything even remotely Vietnamese.
I will not pretend that All the Broken Pieces contains great poetry; Ann E. Burg is no Stephen Dunn or Billy Collins. She takes no risks; her poetry feels more like bulleted lists than innovative or distinctive lines, and those lines would be prose in another author’s hands who did not feel the need to break them into chunks and pretend they are poetic. I might even suggest that I would have enjoyed it more as a prose morality play like Sid Fleischman’s simply brilliant The Entertainer and the Dybbuk. However, she does not need to be brilliant to be effective, and her simple but poignant free verse, more potentially appealing to middlers than to English majors/teachers, is capable of moving and inspiring students to read and possibly write more poetry, and for that, she is to be commended. Although the characters lack concreteness and place (we never find out how old Matt is, where he lives, or background about everyone’s lives), they successfully make the author’s points about the tenuous relationship between prejudice and pain, guilt and remorse, and love and hate. The emotionally-charged images that Ms. Burg occasionally conjures evoke the alienation, fear, and insecurity every middler lives every day. In All the Broken Pieces, author Ann E. Burg invites readers to explore the issues surrounding a painful part of our collective history, and students who did not grow up with the Vietnam War as a backdrop to their lives will benefit from an initial exploration of the myriad ways the war affected America and Americans. I think my students will enjoy it, and like Mari Mancusi’s Gamer Girl, another book I did not like that much but that I heartily recommend to my students (even adding, because they are suckers for reverse psychology, that I did not like it), I will promote it. I just wish there was more for me in Ms. Burg’s spare poetry.

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