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, September 14, 2011

Gray, Eva. Tomorrow Girls: Behind the Gates (Book One). Scholastic, 2011. 211 pages. ISBN 13: 978-0-545-31701-6. This book is for grades 4 and up, or ages 9 and up, depending on reading level. This is also an excellent high-low selection for middle schoolers (3 1/2 stars out of 4).

During the Harry Potter craze, I feared a literary world that was forgetting the scientific and futuristic elements of science fiction. I felt better after reading M.T. Anderson’s Feed and Rodman Philbrick’s The Last Book in the Universe, but with the release of Behind the Gates, the first installment of the four-book series Tomorrow Girls by Eva Gray, it is clear that science fiction is alive and well. The immense cross-over popularity of the Hunger Games trilogy has created such an interest in the dystopia/scary future subgenre that it has finally filtered down to the 9-year-old crowd. Ms. Gray, who on the verso of my advance copy appears to be sci-fi author Suzanne Weyn, author of the solid, 2010 “scary future” sci-fi novel Empty, has written Hunger Games-lite, a suspenseful buddy tale about a group of kids who grow up quickly as they face challenges they think are larger than themselves. But instead of highlighting the political machinations that make Suzanne Collins’ work so engaging, Ms. Gray/Weyn simplifies the story and the setting, creating a much more accessible work that can appeal to not only a broader and younger audience, but also one that may be intimidated by a major novel’s length and appearance.

It is the near future and the world is a mess. Much of the South and Gulf Coast have been destroyed by hurricanes due, it can be assumed, to climate change. Fresh water is rare and meat is practically extinct. The United States is at war with a group called The Alliance that is in the process of invading Canada. Louisa and her BFF Maddie are two of the fortunate young people in this difficult new America. Since both of Maddie’s parents are fighting in the war, Maddie has moved in with Louisa and she is pretending to be her twin sister. Louisa enjoys the privilege of having two parents who, as doctors, still have lucrative jobs and can afford to send their children away to a “safe” boarding school, away from all threats. The Country Manor School appears to be that solution, assuring parents and children alike that their safety is paramount. When their cell phones, electronics, computers and even jewelry are taken, the children are assured it is “for their safety.” But Louisa cannot part with her locket, and its pictures of her parents and grandparents: “I reluctantly reach back to unclasp the locket’s chain. My hand trembles slightly. I can’t stand to part with this. It would be like giving away my parents—and my grandparents!” (36). This and other seemingly unreasonable demands and restrictions, like not being allowed to communicate with the adjoining boys’ school or anyone outside of the school, even their families, creates suspicion, especially in one of the girls’ new companions, Evelyn, who sees conspiracy everywhere. The three girls are thrown together with Rosie, a jock and alpha-type who at first seems caustic, but who grows on Louisa. The four girls are given survival skills classes and told they will be the leaders of something called the New Society. Maddie sees this New Society as an elitist group to which she would not even belong if she was not Louisa’s faux sister, but Louisa likes the idea: “It gives me a feeling of having a serious purpose. I’d never felt like that in school before” (71). However, it is clear that there is more to Country Manor School, and the mysterious, stern headmistress Mrs. Brewster, than meets the eye, and the four girls may be in more trouble than they have ever known in their mostly sheltered lives.

Years of experience working at B. Dalton and Waldenbooks taught me that genres are not truly popular and entrenched until they come out in pulp form. I could not be certain that vampires were entrenched when everyone asked for Twilight; I knew they were when Scholastic released their Vampire Plagues and Poison Apple series. Science fiction is clearly hot—it has filtered down to permeate every level. Pulp is not necessarily a bad thing: this work is no Harlequin romance, but its weaknesses due to an overemphasis on plot and simplistic character development are not fatal flaws, they are what makes the material more accessible. This is not a classic or masterpiece, but it is a very readable version of the latest craze in YA fiction for an important market segment, tweeners and pre-tweeners. I recommend Tomorrow Girls: Behind the Gates by Eva Gray/Suzanne Weyn even though it is derivative and reasonably predictable because those qualities are appropriate to its targeted level.

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Kowitt, H. N. The Loser List. Scholastic, 2011. 207 pages with frequent illustrations. ISBN 13: 978-0-545-24004-8. This book is for grades 3 to 7, or ages 8 to 12, depending on reading level (3 stars out of 4).

Boys are back. In the tweener publishing world’s post-Wimpy Kid, “mangafied,” graphic world of multimedia interfaced reading, in which kids are watching the book’s teaser video on YouTube and playing games and chatting on the book’s website before they even read it, someone finally figured out what eight-to-twelve-year-old boys like. Mix together two teaspoonfuls of wry, pre-adolescent humor and innocent wisdom born of charming naiveté, a couple of tablespoons of embarrassment and guilt from being at an awkward age, a smattering of humorous, simplistic drawings, a quarter cup of bully (occasionally complete with his or her posse), and 2 cups of near misses in which the unlikely hero almost gets beaten up, expelled, grounded, or all of the above. Optional ingredients include half a teaspoon of annoying siblings and a dash of lose-your-best-friend-by-not-being-true-to-yourself. The Loser List by H. N. Kowitt is another unspectacular but appealing example of what boys transitioning from Captain Underpants to the high-low group including Bluford High and/or Orca novels. For the record, I am not denying girls’ interest in this sub-genre, and Dork Diaries does circulate well, but this type of hybrid novel is particularly appealing to boys.

Danny Shine is not looking for trouble, he is just trying to fly under the radar and finish 7th grade without drawing too much attention to his geekiness or his obsession with comic books and drawing macabre images. But when bully Chantal Davis tries to extort Danny’s favorite drawing pen, his coveted twelve dollar T-360, he must defend himself, regardless of the personal cost: “Chantal’s locker is crammed with stuff people have ‘donated.’ Well, I’d already given plenty to the Chantal Davis Fund, and I didn’t feel like making another contribution” (4). As punishment, Chantal puts Danny and best friend Jasper on the Loser List in the girls’ bathroom, which ultimately leads Danny to inadvertently start a food fight, annoy his secret crush Asia O’Neill, and antagonize Gerald Ford Middle School’s other bully, Axl Ryan. When Danny is sent to detention for another offense, Axl is waiting to repay him for his food fight humiliation: “Axl rolled up his shirtsleeves, showing a slice of homemade Sharpie tattoo. In spite of my terror, the artist in me was curious. Did Axl draw it himself? I stretched to get a better look” (55). Danny may be able to use his artistic ability to save him from Axl and his friends, the Skulls, but Danny knows that an unholy alliance can lead to trouble far greater than an occasional jab because of his appearance on the Loser List.

I am still enjoying this recent rash of hybrid, doodle-enhanced novels. Ms. Kowitt’s twist, bulleted, humorous descriptions and drawings of new characters, is both cute and current: that is the way much of young America encounters, digests, and assimilates information. In a world in which even the book is a toy with a screen, buttons, lights, and Internet access, someone has to write books for the Digital Native Generation, complete with graphics, notes, and narration neatly merged together into one cohesive package. The Loser List by H. N. Kowitt is one such package, not all that unique, but just fine for its audience.

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Rylander, Scott. The Fourth Stall. Walden Pond Press (an imprint of HarperCollins), 2011. 314 pages. ISBN 13: 978-0-06-199496-8. This book is for grades 4 and up, or ages 9 and up, depending on reading level (3 1/2 stars out of 4).

There is something about gangsters and the gangster life that still intrigues us. From The Godfather through Goodfellas and culminating with The Sopranos, the illusion of glamour, camaraderie, and power has always uncomfortably accompanied what is by definition a rough, dangerous, amoral, and illegal lifestyle. I have no doubt that the average fan of the gangster genre does not think that the gangster life is for him, any more than a fan of Superman thinks she can fly outside of her dreams. However, vicarious lives do not require the baggage of reality, so it is fun to imagine ourselves as a Corleone or a Soprano living the fast life, attending high class parties and low class funerals, champagne, gowns, and beautiful people (along with copious amounts of blood) flowing like water from a seemingly endless tap. Although rookie author Scott Rylander has not resurrected all of the ambience or violence of the mafia, he has created, with The Fourth Stall, a funny and well-crafted tale of winners and losers, of elation and desperation, of loyalty and betrayal, and most importantly, of failure and redemption.

Although Christian “Mac” Barrett (nicknamed for the ever-resourceful MacGyver) is only in sixth grade, he seems to control his K-8 school. With his best friend Vince keeping the “books” and Joe for protection, Mac oversees his business from the fourth stall from the high window in the East Wing Boys’ bathroom. Anyone who needs a favor, service, or commodity can see Mac, and for the right price, Mac will deliver. Vince and Mac are die-hard Cubs fans, and their beloved losers are finally on the brink of the World Series. They are committed to buying game tickets with their fund. However, when a third grader named Fred comes to the fourth stall and warns Mac that the legendary student thug Staples is back in town, taking bets and fixing games all over school, Mac is compelled to provide both protection and a plan for removing the rough and dishonest Staples before he drives out the relatively benign Mac and Vince for good: “We couldn’t live like this. The only way to end this was to get Staples out of my school for good. We definitely needed to do more than simply protect Fred; we needed to take down Staples” (58). However, when Staples seems to know every move Mac and Vince make, the possibility of a traitor seems more and more likely. If Mac cannot figure out the leak in his organization and find a way of neutralizing Staples, he will be out of business forever, his school will fall under the thumb of a greedy, heartless thug, and he and Vince will never get to see the Cubs in the World Series.

Just as we are accustomed to the good cop-bad cop scenario from watching Kojak and Starsky and Hutch, we seem to tolerate the good thug-bad thug scenario just as well. I like Mac and Vince as the good thugs, even though they break the law, even though they seem to be underhanded at best, even though they manipulate others for their own benefit. One cannot blame the liquor store for turning people into alcoholics. The pint-sized Dons are only providing a service, albeit a shady one. Although there is some light violence in this novel, Mac and Vince are not fighters and they do not advocate violence; they have people for that. In fact, Mr. Rylander’s description of the Rogues’ Gallery who Mac and Vince hire to take out Staples’ Collector, Barnaby Willis, is the highlight of the novel. With names like iBully, Kitten, and Great White, this colorful cast of characters belongs in its own novel. I believe The Fourth Stall will appeal to mainly boys who are looking for something funny to read that does not have to have explosions every chapter; the action develops slowly but smartly. Like Jack Ferraiolo’s The Big Splash, Mr. Rylander’s debut effort is a highly stylized and well-constructed mystery that will leave readers wanting more adventures from the fourth stall from the high window.

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Magoon, Kekla. Camo Girl. Aladdin, 2011. 218 pages. ISBN 13: 978-1-4169-7804-6. This book is for grades 4 and up, or ages 9 and up, depending on reading level (3 stars out of 4).

I recently read in People that Jennifer Lopez was named the World’s Most Beautiful Person. I would not dare to argue J. Lo’s bootyliciousness, but that title is not only one of the most arbitrary pronouncements ever, it is also one of the most damaging. Beauty and its perception cause far too much anguish, stress and suicide. Feeling pretty is a tall order these days, despite the countless aids and accessories available. Several entire industries exist because of our desire to be more attractive, and as their advertisements suggest, we need them to feel good about ourselves. Camo Girl by Kekla Magoon lyrically explores the natural insecurities tweeners (ages 9-12) feel about beauty, acceptance, and loss. The beauty conflict is provided by the protagonist, Ella, who has “camouflage” skin tone with different shades and splotches of brown on her face. Ella is an imperfect narrator who sometimes sounds too mature and experienced for her age and life, but she mostly captures the pain of looking different and feeling ugly with intimacy and verisimilitude.

Ella and Z have been friends forever even though Z has changed over the past few years after Ella’s father died of illness and Z’s gambling father abandoned his family. Z and his mother live clandestinely at the local Wal-Mart (where she works) outside of Las Vegas. Z lives in a quixotic, fantasy world of dragons, knights, and quests in which the limits of reality are blurred: “See, it’s not that Z doesn’t know what’s going on. It’s not that he doesn’t know what’s real and what’s not. It’s just that he can’t stop pretending that the world is a better place than it actually is. If that makes him sick, then I wanna get me some of that flu” (13). Ella is accustomed to being picked on by jerk Jonathan Hoffman, and she has learned to accept her ostracism from any popular group, even her former BFF Millie’s crowd. But when new kid Bailey comes to school and he is not only the only other African-American at her school, he is cute too, Ella feels torn. Could Bailey find her “camo face” attractive? Would he accept Z as he is and not care that he is the butt of the school’s jokes? Could he actually understand the loss and fear that Ella and Z share? Ella must decide if Bailey is interested in popularity or real, in-your-face friendship.

There are too many books about beauty queens, beautiful people, and supermodels and not enough books that celebrate and exalt the ordinary. We are not all born with the potential to look like J. Lo or Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge. Many of us are overweight, have bad skin and are bald (like me) and will never be one of the beautiful people. I like Camo Face by Kekla Magoon not only because it is beautifully written (reminiscent of the lyrical prose of Cynthia Kadohata), but also because the message is powerful: a book does not require a beautiful cover to be a beautiful piece of art.

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Choldenko, Gennifer. No Passengers Beyond this Point. Dial Books for Young Readers, 2011. 241 pages. ISBN 13: 978-0-8037-3534-7. This book is for grades 5 and up, or ages 10 and up, depending on reading level (2 stars out of 4).

It is sometimes hard to remember that I am an adult, and not a young one at that. When I read a story, novel, or narrative that I have “read before” my first thought is to condemn it as derivative. However, let’s face it: my students (and most others, I imagine) are not as well-read as I am. I am not trying to blow my own horn, but I have watched many teachers berate students for not knowing something that only adults normally know; as educators, we need to understand that we have taken classes in this stuff and that we have years of experience and a meta-understanding of YA lit that no 12-year-old can possess. Having said that, authors do not always deserve a break for reinventing an existing story. Yes, Wendy Mass’s 11 Birthdays is Groundhog Day in YA novel form, but it is utterly charming. However, Gennifer Choldenko’s new work No Passengers Beyond this Point, an obvious homage to the 1960s British groundbreaking teledrama The Prisoner, is neither charming nor effective.

India, Finn, and Mouse Tompkins, fourteen, twelve, and six respectively, have lost their home. Mom tried her best, after Dad’s death six years ago, to keep it together, but a perfect storm of financial trouble finally led to foreclosure and repossession. The children, one moody, self-absorbed teenager, one quiet, dutiful tweener, and one precocious child genius with an invisible friend, Bing, will have to move to Colorado to stay with their Uncle Red while Mom cleans up some business and finishes out her school year as a teacher. While on the flight to Fort Baker, Colorado, the plane encounters some turbulence and lands instead in Falling Bird, a mysterious place in which the normal rules of life do not seem to apply. They know something is wrong when India notices that the flight did not last long enough and they look out the window at a surreal sky: “She nods hesitantly, then raises the window shade to peer at the sky. It’s night now, except for this one patch of blue—a puzzle piece from the wrong puzzle” (49). During their arrival, they are celebrated and cheered, given huge houses and tons of clothes, all in their own styles. However, all is not as it seems, and it appears that the children must choose between this world and the real one. Staying is easy; it is extremely difficult, a “1-in-10,000 chance” according to one Falling Bird resident, to get back to the reality with their mother, uncle, and friends. To complicate matters, not all three children are sure they want to return from where they came; they must all make difficult decisions if they want to stay together and build a future they can believe in.

I was almost sure I would like this novel because I am so fond of the author’s other works, specifically Al Capone Does My Shirts and If a Tree Falls at Lunch Period. Although I did like certain aspects of No Passengers Beyond this Point, like the drawings at the beginning of each chapter and the different characters Ms. Choldenko uses to skillfully narrate each chapter in authentic voices. Also, the author starts the novel with an all-too-true representation of the housing crunch that affects so many Americans; this is a timely and poignant message. However, although I normally like a little puzzle to solve in a novel, there is too much mystery surrounding Falling Bird. Is it real or a dream? Are they really there or still on the plane? The combined narratives give a consistently incomplete description of everything that would give the reader a firm footing in a strange world. Ms. Choldenko, due to a surprising and disappointing lack of description, explanation, and raison d’etre for Falling Bird, fails in her attempt to compel the reader to emotionally join the three main characters on their journey through varying stages of adolescence and pre-adolescence. I believe that with more explanation and description, this could have been an effective novel; as it stands, it is merely an enigma.

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Shang, Wendy Wan-Long. The Great Wall Of Lucy Wu. Scholastic, 2011. 312 pages. ISBN 13: 978-0-545-16215-9. This book is appropriate for grades 3 to 6, or ages 8 to 12, depending on reading level.

(3 1/2 stars out of 4)

As a former high school English teacher, I have a tendency to shy away from books that are “young.” I like the issues and complexities of “older” novels; it’s a tough transition from Paradise Lost to Junie B. Jones. However, sometimes new works look so utterly charming that I cannot resist—books like A Crooked Kind of Perfect and Larry: the King of Rock and Roll have made me laugh far more than anything on my middle school’s shelves, and both of those books would be as welcome in a third grader’s hands as they would be in a fifth or sixth grader’s hands. When I picked it up, I hoped that The Great Wall of Lucy Wu by first-time children’s author Wendy Wan-Long Shang would be one of those cute, funny, occasionally clever and/or insightful novels and it did not disappoint. I was so thoroughly engaged in the melodrama of the protagonist that I will even forgive the new author’s use of the word “schlep” (what 11-year-old would say that?). I chuckled from beginning to end and laughed out loud several times during my afternoon with Lucy Wu, which may be the best endorsement available for a middle-level novel.

Precocious 11-year-old Lucy Wu is certainly envious of her gorgeous, Chinese-speaking sister Regina and always feels misunderstood, underappreciated and disrespected in her family, but Lucy is convinced that Regina’s move to college will kick off the best year of her life. However, as soon as she and BFF Madison finish planning a massive redecoration of the bedroom Lucy used to share with Regina, she receives what she perceives as terrible news: Lucy will have to share her room with an old aunt from China named Yi Po. Yi is Lucy’s deceased grandmother Po Po’s long lost sister, and she has finally surfaced. Lucy resents Yi Po for being alive while her beloved grandmother Po Po is gone, and Lucy builds a wall between her space and Yi Po’s space in their room: “Now the desk and bookcase formed a wall between the two beds. The Great Wall of Lucy Wu . . . And I hid my favorite picture of my grandmother, the last one we took before she got sick, in my bookcase” (72). Lucy gets angry at herself because she is starting to lose her distinct memories of Po Po, and angry at Yi Po for reminding her of that sad fact. Even Po Po’s world class noodles, reproduced by Yi Po, depress Lucy: “I can’t remember what Po Po’s noodles tasted like anymore. I wish there were a way to record flavors the way you can record music, and then you could play it over and over in your mouth” (83). To make matters worse, the family of her acquaintance Talent Chang has opened a Chinese school and Mr. And Mrs. Wu have told Lucy that she must go. Unfortunately, Chinese school is scheduled during practice for Lucy’s one true passion, basketball. Lucy desperately wants to be team captain, but even if she could play, the bully Sloane Connors also wants to be captain, and her band of Amazons are ready to pounce on anyone who gets in Sloane’s way. Lucy must make some hard decisions about her future on and off of the court, and she must somehow learn to accept Yi Po’s odd yet hauntingly familiar ways if she is ever to find harmony in her life.

I was instantly taken with Lucy as a character because of her authentic voice; I know many 11-year-olds who have the same manic disposition, the same insecurities, the same overreactions to everything. She is annoying at times, but only because she is real. Ms. Sheng is careful to make the Chinese-American Wu family just as American as Chinese; Lucy’s favorite food is Italian, although dumplings and Chinese noodles do play a prominent role in the story. I particularly enjoyed the author’s use of Chinese idioms and language; I even recognized one of the stories from Jon Muth’s brilliant and quirky Zen Shorts. The Great Wall of Lucy Wu by Wendy Wan-Long Shang is a fine first novel that poignantly and humorously paints a picture of two worlds—old and new, Chinese and American. Not surprisingly, although the two worlds seem disparate, they are more alike than anyone realizes; it is both their similarities and their differences that strengthen both the characters and the narrative.

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