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, April 18, 2012

Northrop, Michael. Plunked. Scholastic, 2012. 247 pages. ISBN 13: 978-0-545-29714-1. This book is appropriate for grades 4 to 7, or ages 8 to 12, depending on reading level and interests (3 stars out of 4).

I make no apologies for liking baseball and baseball books. Just as I subscribed to Baseball Digest as a kid, now (as an older kid) I like to read about the National Pastime as soon as I hear that pitchers and catchers have reported to their Florida and Arizona residences. Fortunately, publishers know there are other folks like me out there and they always accommodate us with new baseball fiction. The one I chose this year, Plunked by Michael Northrop, did not disappoint. The former Sports Illustrated for Kids writer produced a well-constructed retelling of one of the oldest tales in our collective history: the overcoming of The Fear. Every epic/tragic hero, from Gilgamesh and Enkidu to Moses to Achilles and Hector to Sir Gawain to Hamlet to Luke Skywalker and Winston Smith, has had to face his/her darkest fear to move to the next plane of existence. For some, that plane represents religious freedom, liberation of the soul, the chivalric code, revenge for murder most foul, submission to a higher positive power (the Force) or a higher negative power (Big Brother). Protagonist Jack Mogens’ mission is simpler: he simply wants to make his local Little League team before he gets killed.
Sixth grade has been reasonably kind to Jack Mogens so far. He is at the top of the food chain as an upperclassman at Tall Pines Elementary, he has a secure spot among the jocks in the lunchroom, and he has a pretty good shot at starting in left field for the Braves, the local little league majors team. Jack’s biggest problem is thinking of something clever and witty to say to the Braves’ cute shortstop, Katie Bowe. But the team’s bully, also son of one of the coaches, knocks Jack down in practice, starting a chain of events that could have tragic consequences: “The pitch cuts in toward me, chest high. It’s one of those pitches where you can just tell right away that you’re in trouble. The ball just seems to follow you” (47). Trouble seems to follow Jack after that incident, and after an even bigger episode in a real game, fear and malaise creep into his psyche. The doubts that every competitor must overcome plague Jack: Does he have the courage to face his fears? Can he perform under pressure? Can he shrug off his Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and come back stronger than ever? Can he finally not get nervous when Katie Bowe walks into the room? Jack must confront his deepest fears, not lie (too much) to his parents about his situation, find a way to return to left field, and save face with his friends.
I remember what it was like to feel the excitement of baseball season: to collect, trade, and flip baseball cards, to play in little league, to listen to games on a transistor radio, and frankly, to be afraid of the ball. Plunked by Michael Northrop captures the tweener baseball experience with verisimilitude and humor, and I must confess that three students have seen me smiling while reading it and they all want it as soon as I am done. Some of the characters were underdeveloped, particularly the parents; e.g. Mr. Northrop points out two situations in which Dad drinks too much but there is no follow-up, consequence, or effect. However, Jack’s passion for baseball and his obsession with starting in left field are unmistakable and charming, and Plunked by Michael Northrop will make a fine addition to your sports fiction collection.

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Grisham, John. Theodore Boone, Kid Lawyer: The Abduction. Dutton Children’s Books, 2011. 217 pages. ISBN 13: 978-0-525-42557-1. This book is appropriate for grades 4 and up, or ages 9 and older, depending on reading level and interests (2 1/2 stars out of 4).

I still remember my excitement while I read The Firm by the once ubiquitous legal thriller author extraordinaire, John Grisham. I was working at B. Dalton Booksellers and substitute teaching 20 years ago while traversing the alternate route in secondary English. I read that copy all day and night; I stayed up until 3:45 am to find out what happened to the main characters and I survived at work the next day fueled solely by my amazement at the twists and turns of the story (and some mediocre Moorestown Mall food court fare). I was genuinely excited when I heard that John Grisham would be publishing YA books. Since I read mostly YA literature these days, I hadn’t revisited Mr. Grisham’s work until the first Theodore Boone, Kid Lawyer novel last year, and frankly, I was not blown away. I found the story slow, and although Mr. Grisham was informative concerning the legal process, he could have added more suspense and action. The second installment of the series, The Abduction, promised to be more exciting, considering that Theodore’s best friend, April Finnemore, is kidnapped. Although I invite you to judge for yourself, I do not believe Mr. Grisham has found his YA voice yet. Mr. Grisham’s treatment of the material is ponderous and plodding, like the last season of a long-running show in which most of the conflict is gone (like M*A*S*H or Happy Days) or a poorly acted movie-of-the-week mystery.
The normally quiet town of Strattenburg gets turned upside down after the abduction of April Finnemore, Theodore Boone’s best friend. To save her, Theo will need his renowned legal knowledge and acumen teamed with an intensity heightened by fear for his best friend and plenty of help from his friends. Despite his parents’ concerns, Theo embarks on a mission to find the kidnapper and to rescue April. The number one suspect is escaped convict Jack Leeper, who was a pen pal to April while in prison and was spotted at a local convenience store around the time of the abduction. Theo, however, has doubts about that scenario, asking more questions about his mysterious friend from a dysfunctional home than he has answers for: “Theo knew April well, but he also realized there were many things about her he didn’t know. Nor did he want to. Was it possible that she would run away without a word to him? Slowly, he had begun to believe the answer was yes” (43). With unexpected but desperately needed help from his discredited, hippie lawyer Uncle Ike, Theo is more determined than ever to uncover the truth and return his friend, safe and secure, to the friendly confines of Strattenburg.
Once again, similar to my reaction to Theodore Boone: Kid Lawyer, I like the plot and idea of The Abduction, but I am unhappy with the slow pace. Once again, Mr. Grisham has bestowed adult sensibilities upon his kids and his interpretation of kid sensibilities upon his adults, resulting in an informative but uneven and unexciting mystery adventure. The ending is just as anti-climactic as the first book’s ending and just as disappointing. I am not saying that future attorneys or Law and Order fanatics will not find this book valuable and engaging, and I have students who said they liked the first book, but I want more from the author who made my heart skip 20 years ago; I want to have to stay up late to find out what happened, not fall asleep before finishing the penultimate chapter. Unfortunately, Mr. Grisham may not have the touch he had in the 1990s, and he may not impress his audience with this latest effort; tweeners are not particularly forgiving or patient readers.

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Castellucci, Cecil. First Day on Earth. Scholastic, 2011. 150 pages. ISBN 13: 978-0-545-06082-0. This book is appropriate for grades 7 and up, or ages 13 and older, depending on reading level and interests. Note: This work contains mature language and situations (3 1/2 stars out of 4).

Alienation has been in vogue for modern tweens and teens since J. D. Salinger introduced a meandering, post-war “lost generation” to Holden Caulfield. Many YA authors, ranging from the serious Lois Lowry in The Giver to the lighthearted Gordon Korman in Schooled have successfully reproduced the strangeness adolescents feel as both they and their world change and grow exponentially. Cecil Castellucci’s fable-like novel First Day on Earth succeeds in creating a character who both feels like an alien and who appears strange and uncomfortable to most of his world. Her lyrical, sparse characterization drips with verisimilitude, proving the old writers’ adage that less is more.
Malcolm has had a rough few years. His father left him for another family, and his mother has been drowning in a bottle ever since. Mal hates and resents his father for abandoning them, so Mal pities his helpless mother and shops and cooks occasionally to keep her alive. However, the secret that has made Mal a stranger to everyone on Earth is that he believes he was abducted by aliens several years ago and he is fairly certain they are returning for him. This personal reality has separated Mal from almost every one of his peers. However, Mal has a soft spot for lost and helpless animals, and Dr. Manitsky the veterinarian at the shelter and her daughter Posey are kind to him even though Mal knows it is partially out of pity for his difficult situation. When Mal brings in a small, frail kitten orphaned by his mother’s traffic accident, Mal cannot help pondering his fate and perhaps foreshadowing his own uncertain future: “[Dr. Manitsky is] scratching his back and the kitten is purring away, like he finally knows that everything is going to be fine. That there is still love in the world despite a dead mother in the middle of the road. Despite being all alone” (27). After meeting a mysterious man named Hooper at an alien abductees’ support group, Mal is forced to face his personal truth and shaky future, either striving to escape forever or managing to live on Earth despite its challenges and imperfections.
I have known quite a few students like Mal in my life; in some ways, I was Mal when I was 14 and 15, scorning the bleak nuclear future and backward morality of the 1970s. Ms. Castellucci has eerily resurrected the primal fear of adolescence, recreating the terrifying realization that, in our own minds, we are always alone. Although Ms. Castellucci delicately walks the line between science fiction and realism, the power of the novel is that it does not depend on a decision between them to be effective. In First Day on Earth, Cecil Castellucci has created a powerful story of pain and acceptance in which reality is at best subjective and sanity is a personal choice we all must make.

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Dashner, James. The Death Cure. Delacorte Press, 2011. 324 pages with an appendix. ISBN 13: 978-0-375-87030-9. This book is for grades 6 and up, or ages 12 and up, depending on reading level (2 stars out of 4).

As long as I am willing and able to stand in front of a group of students and manage a school library collection (or two in my case), I hope to always remember to not apply my standards to my students’ literary choices. As an English teacher, I never liked Dickens whereas I did like Steinbeck and Orwell, but I still cheerfully taught all of them (although I must admit in my heart of hearts that I probably had more enthusiasm for The Grapes of Wrath and 1984 than I did for Great Expectations). As a librarian, I can never let my biases about literature blind me to what my students want. I walk a fine line between what is popular, what is age-appropriate, what is deemed acceptable by community standards, what is in demand, and what is reviewed a certain way or given certain awards, but what I personally like or dislike is irrelevant. Ironically, this is working against me these days, because I love dystopias and always have ever since I was a teenager, so I have to fight the temptation spend half of my budget on the ever-expanding dystopian titles available these days. I would like to cite The Death Cure by James Dashner as one of the most highly successful and well-crafted young adult dystopias, but unfortunately, after his amazing start with The Maze Runner, Mr. Dashner has disappointed me with lots of running and fighting but not lots of substance. My students who have read it disagree with me, but the story felt hackneyed. However, as I stated above, my opinion is irrelevant: I have several copies on the shelf (and on hold) and I am glad I read it, if for no other reason than to learn the answer to the ongoing series question: is WICKED good or bad?
After surviving the various tests, betrayals, and trials of the Scorch, Thomas finds himself in a room of what he assumes to be WICKED’s headquarters. During three weeks of isolation, Thomas has plenty of time to remember all of the reasons he hates WICKED (World In Catastrophe, Killzone Experiment Department) and to plan his eventual escape, but he will need help from Minho, Newt, and whoever else made it this far and was deemed worth saving. Fortunately, Thomas and some of his fellow Gladers are “munies,” immune to the virus ravaging the earth called the Flare. When Thomas and some of his friends are finally summoned by Dr. Janson (aka, Rat Man), they are given the choice to get their memories back or to remain in ignorance. Also, Thomas, always the most curious of the group, finally gets the answer to the question that has been bugging him for a while: what is the “killzone?” Rat man informs him, “The killzone is your brain. It’s where the virus settles and takes hold. The more infected the killzone, the more paranoid and violent the behavior of the infected. WICKED is using your brain and those of a few others to help us fix the problem” (12-13). Minho, Newt, and Thomas must decide if they trust WICKED and the mantra “WICKED is good” that was Teresa’s last communication with Thomas. If they do not want their memories back and they will not cooperate, will WICKED and Rat Man just walk away from the people in whom they have invested so much time and effort? If they escape, how do they get out and where do they go? The world is not a safe place, but it is unclear whether it is more dangerous with WICKED or on the outside where the Flare is turning people into flesh-eating zombies.
When The Maze Runner series came out shortly after The Hunger Games, I was convinced that James Dashner was the heir-apparent to Suzanne Collins. Sadly, however, Mr. Dashner’s conclusion to the trilogy, The Death Cure, does not have the revelatory, bigger-than-it-seems, allegorical impact of its parents, The Shadow Children and The Hunger Games. This effort is less of a cinematic triumph and more of a movie-of-the-week, satisfying enough if nothing better is on at 2 a.m. However, Mr. Dashner has shown promise and my students like his work, so I look forward to his next project.

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