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, February 02, 2011

Landon, Kristen. The Limit. Aladdin, 2010. 291 pages. ISBN 13: 978-1-4424-0271-3. This book is for grades 6 and up, or ages 12 and up, depending on reading level (3 stars out of 4).

Dystopia is the new vampire, which in turn was the new wizard, which in turn was the new Lemony Snicket. Now that The Hunger Games series has reminded the YA reading audience how much fun and how powerful dystopias can be, many authors (and publishers, who tend to like whatever is popular and whatever people will buy) have clamored to get in on the act. Some very good books, like James Dashner’s Maze Runner series, have continued the dystopia tradition well. The latest entry is The Limit by Kristen Landon, and although I do not think it will be a series, it is a story for our times that presents a frighteningly realistic look at our future, in which we become so powerless over debt that we allow our children to pay our way.

Thirteen-year-old Matt Dunston is great at math, but his skill cannot save his family from Federal Debt Ordinance 169-D. In Matt’s world, probably only a few years removed from our own, everyone has a “limit,” a financial ceiling that no one may exceed. If a family does spend over its limit, the government has the right to force reduced spending by limiting credit, or to take one or more of the family’s children to a workhouse so the child or children can work to pay off the family’s debt faster. After an embarrassing scene at the supermarket in which the clerk had to deny a purchase because the Dunston family limit had been reached, Mrs. Dunston and her children return home to find a shiny black limousine sitting in front of the house. Sensing what is going to happen, Mrs. Dunston fearfully turns to Matt, her oldest son and therefore the vulnerable one: “She gave my thigh a tense squeeze. ‘Whatever happens, remember I love you. We’re going to fix it’” (34). Instead of fixing it, Matt is whisked away to a workhouse and tested. Fortunately for Matt, he is a very talented young man and therefore qualifies for the “Top Floor,” in which kids live in apparent luxury with seemingly limitless spending accounts. However, after Matt overhears a possibly dangerous conversation between the authorities and one of the other Top Floor children begins getting crippling headaches, Matt starts to wonder about the true nature of the workhouse: “Headaches. Crab Woman’s [the main lobby guard] voice from the night before grated like gravel in my mind: It was easier when they just got headaches. You going to have to dump this one too?’” (72). When Matt starts using his impressive math and problem solving skills to investigate and hack into some systems, he finds much more than he bargained for, and danger may be closer than he thinks.

Like Haddix’s Shadow Children series, The Limit by Kristen Landon highlights a new twist in the dystopia genre, in Landon’s case, a financial element that makes children fiscally responsible for their parents’ sins. Completely unsurprising in an age in which YA novels often feature functional children of dysfunctional parents, this new preoccupation is perfectly appropriate for the times. After all, don’t our children always pay for our actions, whether it is by cleaning up the environment, fighting our wars, or assuming our debts? Also, the Dunstons are a perfect example of the post-digital family: Mom consumes but is clueless about her consumption; children are glued to electronics, and Dad seems to recklessly live larger than his means, buying and spending thoughtlessly. Although underdeveloped in the novel, the family symbolizes America’s stubborn denial that we as a country have lived too large for too long. Its helplessness is our helplessness over a financial system that has been stretched too thinly for too long. The Limit by Kristen Landon is a fine suspense novel, but its success relies less on quality writing and plot development and more on a disturbing idea that we understand but do not internalize: eventually, our children will pay for our bloated lifestyles, and that payment may come sooner, and be harsher, than we think.

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When I started reviewing books for this column I sent most of the major publishers a letter asking for advance review copies of new YA novels. Most companies ignored me, but Scholastic put me on their list. I try not to review their books more often than anyone else’s and I certainly never allow their generosity to influence my opinion. However, I must thank Scholastic, because had I not been receiving its advance copies I would not know about many of their very accessible and readable series they publish for the 8-12 tweener crowd. Targeted mostly for girls, these series have a middle class, suburban feel and they tell simple, fun stories. Lacking the edginess of the Bluford or Hazelwood High series, Scholastic’s offerings are more Disney than Twilight, and they have a broad appeal, especially for the surprisingly healthy number of patrons not interested in or not allowed to read books containing violence, cursing, and mature situations. I recently read two new series and liked them both. One of the series, B Magical, was released in 2009 as Spelling B but I confess that I missed it the first time around.

Connor, Lexi. B Magical: The Missing Magic. Scholastic, 2011, originally published 2009. 130 pages. ISBN 13: 978-0-545-11736-4. This book is for grades 4 to 6, or ages 8 to 12, depending on reading level.

When Beatrix (friends call her B) turned eleven, she expected to get her magic like everyone else in her family of witches. B expected to be able to make up a rhyming couplet to cast a spell like her parents and her big sister Dawn, but B is at a loss as to why she has been singled out for shame and weakness. When B wanders into Dawn’s room and finds her in a make-up and fashion session with her witch friends, she is asked by the friends to display some of her “newbie magic,” but B is terrified because she may have to reveal that she doesn’t have any magic, newbie or otherwise: “B panicked. She opened her mouth to say she couldn’t, then clamped it shut again. There had to be a way out of this mess!” (37). When Mr. Bishop, B’s new replacement English teacher, proposes a spelling bee and offers tickets to the hottest concert in town for the winner, B is determined to be the best speller in school, even if it means overcoming her terrible fear of speaking in public. However, ironically, being the best speller may spell out disaster for B and the contest when the tickets go missing, the expected culprit may actually be innocent, and all signs point to disaster for B unless she can solve the mystery.

Daly, Catherine R. Petal Pushers. Scholastic, 2011. ISBN 13: 978-0-545-21450-6. This book is for grades 4 to 6, or ages 8 to 12, depending on reading level.

Life is about to turn upside down for Del (short for Delphinium) Bloom and her family. Del’s grandparents own the only flower shop in their small New Hampshire town but they have decided to retire in Florida. Del has worked at Flowers on Fairfield for a while and is both organized and responsible. But her creative mother, with help from English professor Dad, has decided to run the store on a trial basis much to Del’s chagrin. Del is not convinced that her parents can make this work, and she starts to sound like her old, curmudgeonly Aunt Lily as she fears that the store will be lost: “Yeah, I thought to myself rather meanly, things will be much better with both Mr. and Mrs. Disorganized in charge . . . I didn’t like the way things were going. Not one bit” (51). Del begins to worry even more when she finds out Fleur, a fancy new 21st-Century flower shop, opens in town. Things reach a fever pitch when Del discovers that her arch-rival, the mean Ashley Edwards, is a member of the biggest wedding party of the year, and that party may be leaning towards using the brand new mall flower shop. Complicating matters even more is Hamilton, a new boy at school who may be Del’s first legitimate crush but may also be whisked away by the vicious Ashley. Del must not only work hard to save the sale and the shop, she must also learn to be more flexible in her thinking if she wants to save her relationships with her family, friends, and potential crushes.

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Mass, Wendy. The Candymakers. Little, Brown & Co., 2010. 453 pages. ISBN 13: 978-0-316-00258-5. This book is appropriate for grades 4 and up, or ages 9 and older, depending on reading level and interests (3 1/2 out of 4 stars).

I felt like a fan after meeting New Jersey author Wendy Mass at the NJASL convention last month, and I confess that I am reviewing her new, excellent page-turner The Candymakers from a signed copy, but I will try not to let those facts color my opinion of what is a fine addition to Ms. Mass’s repertoire. Author of noted tweener works like A Mango-Shaped Space (2003), the tweener take on Groundhog Day (the movie), 11 Birthdays (2009), and my personal favorite, the definitive, modern YA boy-finds-father-and-finds-himself, coming-of-age novel Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life (2006), Ms. Mass has obviously done some homework in preparing for her surprisingly fresh take on the ins and outs of the candy making industry, and she has stepped up the level of her writing in the process. Ingredients and confectionary processes are described with the ease that results from research, and characters are both developed with gusto and interwoven with craft, incorporating intricate, detailed plot mapping. Feeling like a fantasy but grounded in reality, cinematic in scope and exciting like a thriller, The Candymakers may be a surprise hit to everyone but those, like readers of this column, who know and admire Ms. Mass’s work.

The stakes are high when the Confectionary Association announces the four twelve-year-old local contestants in the annual contest to create and produce a new candy. Odds seem to favor the Candymaker’s son, Logan, but there is something Logan either does not know or does not understand, something disturbing and conspicuous that Miles, the quiet but sincere contestant with the mysterious backpack, is drawn to upon their first meeting: “In an instant, Miles knew he wanted more than anything to be this boy’s friend. It wasn’t because he felt sorry for him or anything like that. Logan radiated something that felt like goodness. In a weird way, he made Miles feel peaceful” (138). Although Logan seems to be damaged, all four characters carry their baggage partly for the world to see and partly hidden, sometimes even from themselves and their own families. Daisy, a seemingly bouncy and vivacious girl, holds surprisingly powerful secrets and seems to possess unusual strength, while Philip seems to be spoiled, rich kid who expects to win because of his ruthless and insensitive attitude, molded by his Machiavellian older brother and father, but he is hiding something in his notebook that, if revealed, could rock his world and change everything, something known only known by a trusted family servant, Reggie, the Alfred to Philip’s Batman: “He hated that Reggie knew his secret. He supposed it was inevitable, though. Reggie had been a constant shadow since the day his mother died, when he was three” (258). Although the four contestants at the Life Is Sweet Candy Factory do not know it, their fates will intertwine in ways unexpected by any of them, and their individual success will be dependent upon a shifting set of criteria and expectations unforeseen by all.

Ms. Mass does not insult her audience, she fills its voids. I wondered when I saw the length of this work. At 452 pages, I initially feared that students would be scared off, or that the author simply wrote too much or that her editor did not have enough discipline with her red pen. Happily, my fears were groundless. Ms. Mass deftly creates and energizes four distinct characters, each with enough surprises and angst to carry them through to the end of a long novel. In a creative and innovative fashion (for this genre), she characterizes not only through the actions of her characters but also by those characters’ reactions to each other. Also, the length is welcome, not scary. I have many students who, by reading Harry Potter and Twilight, have demonstrated that they will read long novels. Length is not intimidating, reading level, vocabulary, and sophistication of structure are. With The Candymakers, Wendy Mass has given the candy making industry, a topic that felt hackneyed after Willy Wonka, a new perspective and spin for the modern reader. I predict much popularity in my libraries for The Candymakers; I had better go make some room on my Fiction “M” shelf and buy two or three more copies.

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Gosselink, John. The Defense of Thaddeus A. Ledbetter. Amulet Books, 2010. 228 pages. ISBN 13: 978-0-8109-8977-1. This book is appropriate for grades 5 and up, or ages 10 and older, depending on reading level and interests. This is also an excellent high-low selection (3 stars out of 4).

Although Jeff Kinney’s illustrations, explanations and angst are simplistic, he has created a sensation with the Wimpy Kid series, so like the spate of fantasies after Harry Potter and the glut of vampire books that followed Twilight, I expected an overabundance of quickly constructed, poorly conceived, and hastily drawn, derivative imitations of Greg Heffley all over the publishing world. Either the publishers did not think anyone else could catch lightning in a bottle like Mr. Kinney, or authors just have not produced, because up until now, I have not had copycat series or stand-alone novels to recommend. However, Austin, Texas, educator John Gosselink must have his finger on the pulse of something, because I am confident that the Wimpy Kid crowd will quickly latch onto his first novel, The Defense of Thaddeus A. Ledbetter. Its freestyle approach, quirky illustrations, and intentionally juvenile, faux-official look will entertain its readers as much as the main character frustrates his school community (and occasionally his readers as well).

Thaddeus A. Ledbetter (soon to be Esq. as he is quick to point out) feels he has received a bum rap. If you ask this precocious twelve-year-old, he will tell you that he is a repeat victim of circumstance, punished for trying to help his fellow man. However, after incidents in which he nearly sets fire to his pastor, causes $50,000.00 in damage to Crooked Creek Middle School, and instigates a series of events culminating in Thaddeus’s bus attacking an obese bystander mistaken for a Volkswagen Beetle (among other absurd and outrageous incidents in which Thaddeus is involved), the beleaguered Principal Cooper sends Thaddeus to his own, personal In-School Suspension for his entire seventh grade year. From ISS, Thaddeus mounts his “defense,” a series of documents featuring quirky illustrations that he submits regularly to Mr. Cooper in lieu of any of the actual schoolwork he is assigned (and mostly ignores). For example, when Thaddeus lobbies for an “important student lane” that would allow important students, like Thaddeus, to get around the building, Mr. Cooper, as frustrated as anyone over the maelstrom that seems to thrive in and around Thaddeus, still responds with level-headed wisdom: “Who and what determines who the ‘important’ students are? I have a feeling you would volunteer for such an assignment, but we like to think all of our students here at Crooked Creek are important” (20). Thaddeus is a loose cannon who must be stopped, but there are reasons for his unusual and obsessive behavior that must be considered. After all, he is only twelve and should not be able to disrupt the world all that much, he does occasionally make a lot of sense, and there should be services available for students who have trouble operating efficiently within the normal confines of the school environment. When a campaign is mounted to free Thaddeus from his “imprisonment” (one part of Thaddeus’s portfolio is his “prison journal”) Mr. Cooper and the rest of the adults surrounding Thaddeus must decide if they can forgive and move on, or if Thaddeus must, for his safety and the safety of the community, stay in ISS.

I was entertained by The Defense of Thaddeus A. Ledbetter, and I laughed frequently at the protagonist’s antics with the same laughter I normally reserve for The Three Stooges or Lucille Ball. John Gosselink has written a slapstick book, complete with over the top villains, colorful guest stars, and hapless heroes who, despite their best intentions, just cannot catch a break. However, there is an underside to this work: the kid is downright annoying. Thaddeus is every teacher’s and administrator’s nightmare, and he is allowed, in this unrealistic school setting, to run amok. He is asked, not required, to do his work, and he is not provided school services until much later than indicated. Thaddeus’s behavior is obnoxious and obsessive-compulsive, neither normal nor acceptable. I laughed at Thaddeus, but not always with him; although I do not think tweeners will care or notice, I found his behavior occasionally infuriating. Despite my problems with the protagonist’s attitude, I still like The Defense of Thaddeus A. Ledbetter by John Gosselink, and I will still recommend it; it is a bit more edgy than Diary of a Wimpy Kid, more for the older tweener rather than the younger one.

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