Saturday, February 23, 2008

Feathers by Jacqueline Woodson

I didn't want to like this book. I really didn't. After reading the reviews I avoided it. Jesus Boy? How hokey is that? I figured it had Newbery written all over it, but hoped it would not win so I would not feel obligated to read it.

But then it did, and then I did, and so read I did. And I was pleasantly surprised.

In 1971 Frannie's town is divided by the highway - black and white. Frannie lives on the black side of town and attends the Price School with all the other kids from her side of the highway. On January 6 a new boy arrives, white as the falling snow, with long brown hair and gray eyes. Jesus Boy. Who else looks like that on the black side of town? Must be Jesus.

As the story unfolds the reader learns about Frannie's family. Her older brother is deaf. Frannie knows how wonderful he is, but too many other people simply dismiss him. Frannie's baby sister Lila died, her mother lost another pregnancy after that, and is now pregnant again. Then there's Samantha, her best friend whose father is a preacher, adding another layer to the Jesus Boy storyline. One classmate is full of anger, while one seems to be the willing victim. Another classmate is the rich stuck-up kid. But all of them, as Frannie realizes, have much more in common than thought at first.

There's a lot of Jesus in this book. Frannie has chicken pox scars on her hands. Samantha wants to believe Jesus Boy really is Jesus, returned to attend their school. Frannie's parents go to church, her grandmother goes to two churches (frequently bonking Frannie's head with her Bible), and Frannie rarely goes at all. ("Don't you want to be saved, Frannie?" asks Samantha.) But Frannie, the least church-y, does the most Christian thing, helping Trevor in a time of need when most others are quietly pleased that he got what's coming to him. The thread of faith runs throughout the story, leaving readers to wonder what makes a person faith-full. What drives a person to God? Sadness and need? Obligation? Tradition? Or the desire to do what's right, even when it's not popular?

I've stated why I'll recommend books here, and following those guidelines, I can't recommend Feathers. But that doesn't stop me from saying that it's a good book, one that certainly made an impression on me, one that I'll tell others about. I just won't be putting it into students hands saying, "Here's one you just have to read!"

Friday, February 22, 2008

A Week in the Woods by Andrew Clements

Mark is moving. Not moving, really, just "transfering" to another house. His family has plenty to choose from. He's leaving the house in Scarsdale, New York (it'll be nice to have a home so close to New York City, his parents believe) and going to the new house in Whitson, New Hampshire - purchased and remodeled to the tune of $3.5 million. His parents, on business in San Francisco, won't be there of course. Business is business. But Leon and Anya, the Russian couple hired five years ago as handyman and housekeeper (and babysitter, thinks Mark), will move with Mark.

Mark's also leaving Lawton Country Day School to attend Runyon Acadamy, a private boarding school. But for the end of fifth grade he'll attend Hardy Elementary, the local public school in Whitson.

Where he meets Mr. Maxwell. Who cuts and splits his own fire wood. Who built his own log cabin and installed solar panels and a generator that made electricity from the stream on his property. Who installed a filter to cut down the pollution from his wood burning furnace. Who has worked hard for everything. THAT Mr. Maxwell.

Can you see the collision coming? Mr. Maxwell puts 100% into everything and Mark, uninterested in his temporary public school, is a major slacker. Mr. Maxwell has planned A Week in the Woods, a five day camping trip for the entire fifth grade, for 16 years, and this year Mark is going. Just when their relationship starts to improve, Mark is busted on the trip for something that's not his fault, and he loses any respect he's earned from Mr. Maxwell.

Despite being a slacker, Mark has really gotten into "the woods." So out of anger and the injustice of being sent home as punishment, he runs away. To the woods. He disappears. And Mr. Maxwell heads out to find him. The events that follow test both Mark and Mr. Maxwell's knowledge of the woods, and all their knowledge will be needed for them to return in one piece.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Once Upon a Marigold by Jean Ferris

Edric doesn't bother anyone. He ran away from home, got a job (gathering lost items in the forest), and taken up a cause (wrestling a piece of the Tooth Fairy business away from incompetent Queen Mab). He lives happily in his cave with his two dogs in the forest between the kingdoms of King Beufort and King Swithbert. You know, normal, everyday troll activities.

Then Christian quite literally wanders into his life. Chris has also run away from home, but he's only six, and he refuses to go back. Days become weeks, weeks become months, and pretty soon Ed finds himself the foster father of an 18-year-old!

All is well until Christian decides to send a message via p-mail (delivered by pigeon) to the princess. He can see her on the castle terrace across the river. She seems sad, but she reads a lot, and he's interested in what she's reading.

They start a correspondence and soon become friends, each promising to be a bulwork for the other. Then at the suggestion of Hayes Centaur, Chris finds a job at the castle, and on the first day finds himself face to face with Marigold, who doesn't know who he is. Nevertheless, there he is, ready to be Marigold's bulwork, helping her through a sick father (the king), a twisted mother (the queen), numerous suitors (Ugh!), and the arrest of a best friend (guess who?).

The law is the law. Royalty may only marry royalty. Peasants may not even speak to royalty, let alone marry a princess.

Everyone knows how fairy tales end, right? But finding out how the knots in this yarn untangle is marvelous. (Watch for the sequel, Twice Upon a Marigold, in the spring of 2008.)

Update: Twice Upon a Marigold is now released.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Lawn Boy by Gary Paulsen

You're twelve. It's summer. You want a little money...enough, anyway, for a new inner tube for your bike. So when Grandma shows up out of the blue with an old riding lawn mower for you and says, "My bridge club is meeting on Thursday night which makes it hard to watch CSI since it's on Thursday too. Did you know that?" you do what any normal boy would do. Dismiss the indecipherable comment and start trying to figure out how to run the thing.

So now the mower is mowing. And now a neighbor asks if you mow lawns. For money. (Uh, yeah? I'm twelve. Money is good.) By the end of the day, one $20 lawn has become $60 (three lawns) and a list of six more names who are interested in acquiring your services.

And the next thing you know, you're staring hundreds of thousands of dollars square in the face.

Okay, maybe it's not "the next thing you know." You can't forget meeting the hippie stock market guy. Or your employees. Or the mafia type thugs. Or your sponsored prize-fighter. Or what your sponsored prize-fighter does to the mafia type thugs. No, you can't forget them. But sooner than later you are staring hundreds of thousands of dollars square in the face.

All this - and more - happens to the main character in Lawn Boy. (His grandmother, by the way, has a habit of making off the wall comments. It'll make sense, she says. Eventually.)

Gary Paulsen has a way of making economic concepts come to life through the experiences of our lawn-mowing hero. But don't let the economic talk scare you. The kid makes money. Lots of it. Period. And how he does it is flat-out hilarious.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Riding Freedom by Pam Munoz Ryan

Charlotte lives on an orphanage in the mid-1800s. Her only friend has been adopted, and she knows she will never have that opportunity. Her one joy in life is horses, but she's been banned from the stables and blamed (wrongly) for a horse's death. She's been sentenced to kitchen work with Mrs. Boyle, the aptly named cook.

How far would you go to flee from this life?

Charlotte becomes a different person. With a haircut, some quick thinking, and a reliance on the education she received following the boys at the orphanage, Charlotte becomes Charley.

Charlotte exchanges her miserable life for one she creates for herself. After running away, Charley works for the stagecoach company, eventually becoming a driver. She gets a satisfying bit of revenge on Mr. Millshark, the overseer of the orphanage. Eventually Charley moves to California and purchases land. Charley votes. And in doing all this, Charlotte makes history, unbeknownst to all but a precious few who know her secret.

After the first two chapters detail the miserable conditions of Charlotte's life, readers understand why Charlotte feels she needs to run away. The following chapters are victory after victory, success after success, as Charlotte fights against the beliefs of her time and the threat of her secret becoming known.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Swindle by Gordon Korman

Sixth grader Griffin Bing (a.k.a. The Man with a Plan) always has a plan. Always. He planned a secret overnight in the condemned Old Rockford House just to stick it to the town council for refusing to hear his plan for developing the Rockford site. While the excursion doesn't go according to plan, an unintended discovery - a George Herman Ruth baseball card with the Babe wearing a Red Sox uniform - is Griffin's hope to save his family from financial troubles.

But after the owner of the memorobilia store cons Griffin into taking $120 for a card he then puts up for auction (starting bid: $200,000), a plan unlike any other is needed. Sure it breaks the law. Sure it breaks many laws. But S. Wendell Palomino (a.k.a. Swindle) knew full well he was cheating Griffin. Sometimes a swindler needs to be swindled.

When the villian is so clearly villianous and the victim is so clearly victim-ous, readers simply can't wait to see Swindle lose all he has obtained dishonestly. Hopefully with plenty of embarassment. And scorn from the community. And for good measure, some babyish crying too.

Griffin develops a plan - two plans, actually - to steal back what's rightfully his, which of course makes it not stealing, even though it involves breaking and entering. Twice. Griffin recruits a diverse group of classmates for their unique abilities - a dog whisperer, a computer whiz, a rock climber, an actor, a best bud, and a thug - and the plan is put into action.

Unfortunately for Griffin, but to the great delight of the reader, his plans don't always go as planned. Twists and turns and spur of the moment decisions make this million dollar swindle a fast, rewarding read.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick

Saying to a fourth grader, "Hey, I think you'll like this book," might get you a funny look. Say that while holding up a book that's Bible thick at 533 pages will earn you a downright scornful glare. Unless that book is The Invention of Hugo Cabret.

Once children see the treasure inside they'll be intrigued at worst and flat-out hooked at best. Hugo Cabret uses pictures unlike any other book that comes to mind. While picture books like Caldecott winning Tuesday and Flotsam by David Wiesner have told stories wordlessly, Hugo Cabret incorporates the wordless story into a novel. The pictures don't show what the reader is reading. The pictures tell the story. Readers engrossed in the novel will suddenly encounter 20 pages of pictures. The pictures pick up seamlessly where the writing leaves off and lead smoothly into the next section of text.

Hugo Cabret has inherited the job of timekeeper at the Paris train station at the turn of the 20th century from his uncle who has disappeared. Hugo must keep all the clocks running. He lives in the walls of the station.

Hugo meets Isabelle and her godfather, Papa Georges, the owner of a toy shop. Hugo also has an automaton - sort of a turn of the century robot normally used by magicians - from his father. Hugo painstakingly restores the automaton and believes that it will create a message from his father. The mystery deepens when a key Isabelle has operates the machine, and the automaton's message is signed by Papa Georges! How could these connections have occurred?

All answers are eventually revealed. There are hints throughout the book, starting immediately, leading to tense rising action and a satisfying happy ending. Readers are also introduced to a early filmmaking. Many early movies are mentioned, and with a little Internet digging, readers can easily locate and watch A Trip to the Moon by Georges Melies, originally made in 1902, which plays a major role in the book.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Elijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis

Elijah's claim to fame is that he was the first child born free in Buxton, a town established by escaped slaves in Canada. People in Buxton also freely remember him as the baby who threw up everything he ever ate on the famous Mr. Frederick Douglass. Either way, he's well known in the community.

Now eleven, Elijah deals with normal eleven year old situations like school, friends, trouble, listening to the wrong people, and girls. But Elijah (and readers) also learns about slavery, freedom and its value, and respecting his and his community's history. And difficult lessons are sometimes learned through difficult situations.

The book is full of laugh-out-loud funny parts. One favorite is when Cooter, Elijah's eager but sometimes misguided friend, sees "Familiarity Breeds Contempt" printed on the blackboard before class. Using problem solving skills of which all teachers would surely be proud, he accesses his prior knowledge, looks at word parts, and deciphers this yet unknown phrase. His understanding? "Family Breeding Contest." Imagine being eleven and going to class knowing this was the topic of the day!

At the same time readers are exposed to the seriousness of slavery. Elijah encounters captured runaway slaves, shackled to a barn wall, awaiting their return to the south - a trip they don't plan to make. The runaways' torment and anguish over what is to come is clearly evident to older readers. Younger readers, along with Elijah, will learn more slowly, and may not truly understand all of what their future holds. But Elijah understands enough to help. His heart is gold. He does what he can. Through this experience and other related ones, Elijah begins to understand more and more about freedom and its cost.

Like Curtis's The Watson's Go to Birmingham - 1963, Elijah of Buxton is the the tale of two books. As readers are drawn into the story by is humor they may miss the foreshadows of the seriousness to come. Eager readers may leave school laughing at hoop snakes but return the next day confused and angry over Elijah's trip to the circus or encounter with the captured runaways. It is for this reason only that this truly exceptional book does not receive my highest recommendation. (For more information see My Soapbox.)

Monday, February 4, 2008

The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt

Anything to get out of school, right? As long as it doesn't get you in trouble or in the doctor's office, that is. Wednesday afternoons are dedicated to religious education at Camillo Junior High in 1967. The Jewish half of class attends Hebrew School at Temple Beth-El and the Catholic half attends Catechism at Saint Adelbert's. That's everyone in seventh grade.

Except Holling Hoodhood, the seventh grade's only Presbyterian.

Due to this theological quirk, Holling is Mrs. Baker's only student on Wednesday afternoons. She's thrilled. And she hates Holling, at least according to him. What more proof would a seventh grader need of a teacher's true loathing than to be assigned...of all things...gasp!...Shakespeare?!? Alone! So, starting with The Merchant of Venice, Holling takes on the Bard. His new Shakespearian education (and appreciation) lands him a gig as Ariel the fairy in The Tempest, complete with yellow tights and feathers on his, well, I'll let Holling disclose the exact location of the feathers.

Not that it's all Shakespeare and feathers on the butt (sorry, Holling.) Holling's career obsessed father refuses to acknowledge his flower child sister's growing political beliefs. The war in Vietnam runs throughout the story, but despite evenings with Walter Cronkite and teachers' husbands serving overseas, the war doesn't overwhelm the reader. There's also a few escaped (monster-sized mutant) rats in the school, Doug Swieteck's brother, unlucky cream puffs, the aforementioned yellow tights, and Holling's relationship with Meryl Lee, the daughter of his father's main competitor. In the end Holling doesn't necessarily choose his destiny, but he does come to terms with the main person who will decide it. Himself. Tights and all.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Schooled by Gordon Korman

Schooled takes a simple concept, one that middle school readers will easily grasp - sheltered home-schooled kid suddenly must attend local middle school - and stretches it juuuuust up to the point of unbelievability. But the line is never crossed.

This could be my school, readers think. Readers will see their school's I-Know-I'm-Popular guy and the I'll-be-with-THAT-guy girl and the Oh-No-Not-Another-Wedgie geek. Korman creates perfect stereotypes but through numerous narrators shows you what is going on inside each character. The insecurities of the popular kids, the necessary alertness of the geek, and the true cluelessness in home-schooled hero Cap are all clear, offering readers a glimpse into the minds of kids different from themselves.

Capricorn was raised by Rain, his grandmother, on a commune left over from the sixties. They are the only two residents left. When Rain must stay in the hospital for extended rehab after falling and breaking a hip, Cap goes to live with social worker Mrs. Donnelly, herself a former resident of Garland Farm. Cap knows nothing of middle school life, from lockers to talking back to teachers. (When a teacher asks if he is talking back, he responds, "Yes?")

Cap is elected 8th grade class president as a joke. His nomination, campaign, election, and even press conferences are all choreographed by the popular kid for the class's entertainment. Cap, being his naive self, believing he needs to learn and know everyone's name, starts slowly winning over the school. Problems come of course (A checkbook? You fill this out and the bank pays?) but in the end everyone learns something about themselves and their actions, a favorite character "dies," and readers are left with a terrific, nearly unbelievable, surprise ending.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Frindle by Andrew Clements

Imagine that by following a teacher's lesson exactly as she taught it, you could annoy that teacher to no end. Add in the fact that the teacher is exactly the kind of teacher - in students' minds - that needs a little annoying and you've got the situation that Nick has fallen into. Mrs. Granger has told Nick's class that they are the ones who decide what goes in the dictionary. Since they are the ones, along with all other people, who call a dog a d-o-g, then that's what goes in the dictionary.

So Nick gives it a try. He invents the word frindle. Problem is, there already is a word, pen, that describes a frindle. Mrs. Granger is not amused. It's not necessary to invent a word when there already is a perfectly acceptable and usable word, according to "The Lone Granger." So she bans it. Forbids its use. Suddenly fifth graders are staying after school because of the word. Then the rest of the school catches on. (A forbidden word...and it's not naughty? Let me at it!) The students at the local high school hear about frindle. But when a phone call is placed to the local newspaper and a fifth grade class photo - with all fifth graders holding a pen, lips forming the "ffffff" of frindle - mysteriously turns up at the local newspaper, that's when this snowball hits the really steep part of the hill.

Students who stand up for what they think is right even if it's unpopular with teachers, character secrets, a satisfying ending, and a surprise or two along the way make Frindle a winner. Teachers, this is a great one for you if you need a little reassurance that all your hard work does make a difference.