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, May 31, 2010

Quick, Matthew. Sorta Like a Rock Star. Little, Brown and Co., 2010. 355 pages (3 stars out of 4). This novel contains a few isolated examples of potentially offensive language.

One notable element in the recently reviewed 8th Grade Superzero by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich is that at times, while working at the local homeless shelter, it is difficult to determine who is homeless and who is not. The novel reminded me that homelessness is a condition that can strike anyone at any time he or she receives a difficult blow. In his first YA novel, Matthew Quick paints homelessness with this brush, and his main character and her mother are products of bad luck and fate just as much as by their own actions and/or inactions. Whether or not a student behaves and quietly does her work is not so much a priority if that same child has not eaten for 24 hours or more, and acting out may not be totally inappropriate for someone wearing the same unwashed underwear for a week or more. We all feel compassion for those less fortunate than ourselves and we all want to help, but sometimes, the homeless will not let us into their worlds. I appreciate Mr. Quick for giving me a glimpse into homelessness that does not at all times feel realistic, but that clearly rings more true than false. He has also written a pretty good first YA novel, featuring (increasingly frequent in YA literature) positive Christian themes and a character who has a personal realtionship with God in the novel; several skillful examples of foreshadowing and suspense; and well-planned prose that meets the needs of the protagonist: stream-of-consciousness and rich when she is “on,” sparse and empty when she is down.

Amber Appleton is seventeen and a living contradiction. She lives in the school bus her mother drives that she calls Hello Yellow, but she has established many homes away from this temporary abode: she showers, changes, and sometimes eats at her autistic friend’s house, she spends afternoons either volunteering at a seniors’ home, teaching Korean women to sing soul songs in English at church, drinking tea with a haiku-writing, Zen-minded Vietnam Vet, or hanging out with her friends, the Franks Freak Force, a.k.a. The Five. Amazingly, Amber seems to keep it together, in spite of the tremendous odds stacked against her due to her condition, and her obvious and most influential handicap: an alcoholic mother who has almost completely given up on life. Amber seems to accept this fate with optimism sometimes, realism other times: “I mean, it’s a pretty pathetic story, and I’m not really all that proud to be my mom’s daughter right now. Homelessness reflects badly on both of us. True? True . . . [however] Mom is sure to come through one of these days” (8). Amber has role models in her life, and she dreams of attending Bryn Mawr College and Harvard Law School, but when an unexpected tragedy occurs, Amber must spend all of her energy just keeping herself from slipping into the same abyss that caused her homelessness. With a Nietzsche quote in mind, that people are particularly vulnerable when they spend all of their time on guard (like people who harbor a secret about being homeless), Amber must summon all of her energy to reinvent herself, or accept the same fate as her broken family.

Last year, I wrote about the increasing frequency of the theme of highly functional kids enduring highly dysfunctional parents in YA literature, exemplified by novels such as Lisa Yee’s Absolutely Maybe, in which the protagonist’s mother emotionally abandons her, and Linda Urban’s A Crooked Kind of Perfect, in which the protagonist’s father is autistic. Unlike some characters who are intentionally or blatantly abusive, neglectful, troublesome, or merely highly embarrassing (like the Elizabethan-era garb of Hamlet’s parents in the recently reviewed The Total Tragedy of a Girl Named Hamlet), Mom tries as hard as she can, which is not nearly enough because of her alcoholism, beaten-down spirit, lack of skills, attraction to toxic men, and bad luck. However, despite adverse conditions, her daughter is able to survive by planting roots not at her own nonexistent home but at the homes of others, from a Korean Catholic priest to a haiku-writing Vietnam vet to a seniors’ home to a little-respected Marketing teacher to a single-parent power attorney and her autistic son. Amber Appleton’s ability to form alliances, innovate, and charm the competition creates appeal across a wide spectrum of folks, and her mistakes and faults are felt across that spectrum as well. If it takes a village to raise a child, then despite some bumps and bruises, the Philly suburb of Childress does alright in raising Amber Appleton. The school scenes are sometimes unrealistic in the way Amber and her supporters treat the principal and school board, and some events are a little too convenient, making the story seem a bit contrived at times. But despite these minor flaws, easily forgiven for a new writer, I applaud Matthew Quick and his first YA novel Sorta Like a Rock Star for normalizing homelessness with humor; it reminds us that hardship we cannot even imagine is probably closer to our lives than we think, that mistakes bring us closer, and that a little human kindness goes a long way.

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Dowell, Frances O’Roark. Falling In. Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2010 (3 1/2 stars out of 4)

One of my most vivid childhood memories is a recurring dream I had when I was five or six. My aunt, uncle and cousins lived in a big rancher in Dresher, PA, and I once dreamed every night for more than a whole week that their house had a secret door that only I knew about, and that door led to a magical room filled with endless rows of the coolest toys in the world. Unfortunately, the boogeyman and other similar monsters lived there as well, so every visit was an adventure of the highest magnitude (for a kid). It has been years since I remembered that time in my young life, but Frances O’Roark Dowell seems to know just what I experienced. In her new novel Falling In, she proves that she understands childhood imagination when she describes my dream almost to the letter: “Everybody’s had the dream where you find a door inside your house you’d never noticed before . . . Usually it’s filled with wondrous things . . .” (23). As regular readers of this column know, I do not read and review much fantasy, but I was intrigued after flipping through the book and finding that paragraph. I am happy to say that I was not disappointed, and that Ms. O’Roark Dowell’s Falling In is a fine Alice in Wonderland-type story about a girl who needs to find her place and herself in the universe, but cannot seem to do it in the regular world.

Isabelle Bean has never truly felt a part of this world. There is a buzzing in the world that she hears that no one else seems to notice, and since Isabelle is a loner who rarely attempts social interaction, she has no one with whom to share her insights. Isabelle is an outsider, or at least she feels like one: “There is a barely visible edge of otherworldliness to Isabelle, a silver thread that runs from the top of her head to the bottom bump of her spine. It frightens other children away. They’re afraid that if they sit too close, the thread will weave itself into their hair and pull them into dark places they can’t find their way out of” (14). This feeling of not belonging to this world is confirmed when Isabelle opens the school nurse’s closet and inadvertently steps into an alternate universe in which a wicked witch eats children who are always on the run from the grisly end they have been taught to expect if caught. When she first arrives in this parallel world, the local children think she is the witch because no one has ever actually seen her. Isabelle must prove her (reasonably) honorable intentions to not only the local strangers but also to Hen, a girl who may have befriended Isabelle primarily because she wants help in killing the witch. When the two adolescent ladies are taken in by Grete, a mysterious hermit and herbalist, Isabelle must open her mind and heart as the secrets of her innermost being become revealed. As she learns the Truth, Isabelle’s world and her destiny unravel with little hope of returning home, if that is even possible.

Although I cannot pretend to understand the process completely (as a man), young ladies definitely go through life-altering changes during puberty. Drastic and sudden changes can lead to culture shock and self-alienation as the individual no longer understands herself or her world. I have always read Alice in Wonderland as a metaphor for the female puberty journey from childhood to young adulthood, and I read Falling In by Frances O’Roark Dowell the same way. Ms. O’Roark Dowell’s inspired use of imagery, particularly sound, spreads an air of mystery across the entire novel; i.e. “In Mrs. Sharpe’s classroom the buzz had been a distant thing, felt more than heard. Here [in the alternate world], wherever here was, the buzz flattened out into a low-pitched hum, the sound of tiny motorcycles, maybe, or an off-kilter ceiling fan endlessly running, issuing a quiet whine. Isabelle stood, determined to find its source” (28). When Isabelle finally does start to solve her mysteries, as expected, she ends up with more questions than answers. But she is a resourceful and fanciful young lady who will succeed and find herself, despite whatever fate tries to inflict upon her. Isabelle Bean is a model of originality and creativity; Ms. O’Roark Dowell has created a memorable and dynamic character who is not afraid to stare down her destiny until it yells, “Uncle.”

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Monday, May 17, 2010

Wiles, Deborah. Countdown. Scholastic Press. 377 pages, plus author’s notes and background. ISBN 13: 978-0-545-10605-4 (2 stars out of 4)

Although I do not watch much television (who has time?), I am aware of and familiar with most popular shows just by listening to the radio and perusing a general smattering of popular monthly magazines. One show, AMC’s trendy Mad Men, has even created nostalgia for a long-gone and little-glamorized period, the early 1960s, the era of such happy times as the Cuban Missile Crisis, JFK’s assassination, and Freedom Ride murders. All of a sudden, it’s cool for men to wear suits and hats, smoke, and womanize again (as if it were ever cool to begin with), and women get to “enjoy” that second class status they so poorly deserved and worked so hard to eliminate over the last 50 years. Using primary sources such as song lyrics, biographies, and symbols/pictures from the era, Deborah Wiles has hopped on the early 1960s bandwagon with her latest effort, Countdown. Although her author notes indicate that she started this work as a picture book in 1996, the current early 1960s craze has certainly contributed to its release now. Frankly, as an adult idea, this type of book has promise, but as a book for upper elementary and middle schoolers, I fear it lacks relevance for today’s youth.
Franny Chapman lives in fear and insecurity most of the time. 1962 is a transitional year, and Franny seems to have trouble with change. Her best friend Margie appears to be friends now with Gale, daughter of the local (and off-limits) divorcee. Franny’s sister Jo Ellen, who frequently receives mysterious letters from someone named Ebenezer, is away at college and disappears for days at a time. Worst of all, Franny’s Uncle Otts, still scarred from the horrors of World War I, insists on building a fallout shelter right in the middle of their suburban Maryland yard. Suffering tremendous embarrassment, fear of reprisal, and concern for his health, Franny tries but fails to get Uncle Otts to stop: “There’s a crater forming in the front yard. Uncle Otts wipes his face with a handkerchief, loads up the wheelbarrow with chunks from our front yard, begins to roll the wheelbarrow toward the bushes, and then . . . the wheelbarrow topples onto its side. Uncle Otts staggers backward several steps, drops his shovel, and topples like a domino” (95). It is October 1962, and Franny’s world, along with everyone else’s, is being turned upside down and inside out because of the Cuban Missile Crisis; additionally, Franny’s dad is an Air Force major whose job brings world events right into the Chapmans’ living room. Franny must find a way to regain her best friend (or make a new one), save Uncle Otts from himself, discover Jo Ellen’s secrets, and avoid the Russians’ plan to conquer the world, all while finishing fifth grade without alienating her classmates and teachers. Whether deserved or not, Franny definitely feels the weight of her problems and the world’s issues firmly on her shoulders.
Countdown by Deborah Wiles is a cool idea, but not for the targeted age group. Middlers of this generation do not know about the Cuban Missile Crisis, and they generally do not learn that material in my district until 8th grade. The novel contains YA biographies that look like they are fresh from our SRA readers of the 1960s, but they do not stop in 1962, so the impact of their inclusion is diminished; it would have made more sense to make the biographies appear as if they appeared in Franny’s Social Studies or Language Arts textbook. Now, they simply appear out of context. My students (and sometimes, even their parents) have no context for the grace of Jackie O, the protest of Pete Seeger, or the commitment of the SNCC and the Freedom Riders, so their stories may be lost to today’s students. Also, coincidentally, there is no mention of what the political Right was up to in the early 1960s; where is Goldwater beside Kennedy? The pictures and song lyrics are provocative, but only to people who understand their context. I admire the creation of a new genre, and this “non-fiction novel” is an admirable effort, but I fear its subtleties will be lost on its target demographic. Choosing Jo Ellen the college student as the protagonist might have drawn in a more mature and knowledgeable audience that could better appreciate the book’s message. I am concerned that students will think Countdown by Deborah Wiles is too much like a history textbook and that, like Bert the Turtle, they will duck and cover when they check it out on the shelves.

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Carman, Patrick. Trackers: Book One. Scholastic Press, 2010. 224 pages. ISBN 13: 978-0-545-16500-6. (3 1/2 stars out of 4)
The paper, binding, and ink that sheltered me under their protective and expansive umbrella while growing up are disappearing in a blur of e-readers, anime, and video, probably never to be seen again except during the inevitable nostalgia movement in about twenty years. After missing out on The 39 Clues series and Skeleton Creek, two of Scholastic’s recent attempts at cross-media books incorporating video and internet use, I decided it was time for me to see what the fuss is about. Frankly, I never expected to like Trackers by Patrick Carman, and now, after reading it, I am embarrassed for my pre-judgment—I liked it quite a bit, and I can understand why my students will like it as well. I spent hours (without ever intending to, I assure you—it was that absorbing) trying to defeat the three glyph game levels to unlock videos at www.trackersinterface.com, as well as explaining to colleagues and students walking by, who were wondering why I was playing a video game, “It’s a literature website and this is related to a book—I swear!” I finally had to finish the puzzles at home. Although the videos and game are not essential to understanding the material, they definitely enhance what is otherwise a pretty standard Spy Kids-ish suspense thriller. I would rather have my students watch video in this context than numb their minds with too much anime.
Adam Henderson is a computer genius, but he is more than that. Ever since he was five, he has been working at his dad’s Seattle computer repair store, Henderson’s Chip Shop; for Adam’s ninth birthday, Mr. Henderson gave his son a surprise that would define the rest of his youth, a technology workroom of his own called The Vault: “‘Consider it your laboratory,’ he said, nodding toward the door. ‘Anything that gets left behind [at the repair shop], you can have.’ The vault was small and stuffy, like a closet, but it was mine. I turned around and hugged my dad as if he’d just given me a dirt bike, twelve thousand candy bars, and another dirt bike” (7). Adam uses his talents to build supercomputers and high-tech surveillance equipment he plans to sell someday to the highest bidder, but he needs field operatives he can trust to test his hardware. When he hooks up with friends Finn, Emily, and Lewis, his tracking team is complete. The trackers are not interested in harming anyone or anything, they just like each other and share both mutual interests and complementary skills. Adam also invents a symbolic language using symbols called glyphs that play an important role in the action. At first, the team simply conducts tests of new cameras and other technology, but after discovering that others know about glyphs and may have sent him a secret message, Adam stumbles upon a mystery so dangerous that it threatens the actual fabric of the internet: a back door program may exist that can hack anything on the internet, or even shut the net down completely. Team members must decide if they are willing to risk their lives to combat this threat, but they may already be in too deeply to turn back.
Although the novel ends like a book with a sequel, very much like Haddix’s Found, I enjoyed the total experience of Trackers by Patrick Carman. The website, www.trackersinterface.com, contains cool games related to the glyphs, and as the reader delves deeper into the action, more and more videos become unlocked so readers can both see some of the action and place faces and traits with characters. This can be especially important not only for special needs classes who appreciate multiple information delivery formats, but also for all boys who just like to manipulate stuff, look at stuff, and move around while they read. The videos are reasonably well-acted, on a par with the old after-school specials but updated for the times. The book is narrated from some type of official holding facility, and only Adam’s safety is assured throughout the novel, so there are many questions left to ask and many mysteries left to uncover. No one, including the reader, knows who to trust, so Patrick Carman has succeeded with Trackers. Add it to your high-low list and your list of good books for boys, although everyone can enjoy it.

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