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

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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