Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos
Jack Gantos has a whole summer planned full of baseball, history books, and war movies when suddenly, caught in the middle of his quarreling parents, he becomes “grounded for life,” ruining everything. Even though he lives in the dying town of Norvelt (originally founded by Eleanor Roosevelt to help poor families) and there’s not much to do, when his mom volunteers him to help an aging neighbor type up the town’s obituaries, he’s less than thrilled. Soon, though, Jack finds himself absorbed in the town’s history and the “original” Norvelters, as his spunky neighbor calls them, and he’ll do anything to get out of house arrest and over to help her in her task. Soon he’s involved not only with the obituaries but in a feud with an old man who ride’s a trike, play-acting the Grim Reaper, distributing Girl Scout cookies, digging a fake bomb shelter, and a near-constant nose bleed, not to mention a potential murder. Suddenly his summer is anything but dull!
Described as “melding the entirely true and the wildly fictional,” Dead End in Norvelt is a most-times funny and sometimes heart-breaking story of a boy coming of age in an old town past its prime full of wacky yet believable characters. Both darker and lighter themes blend with Gantos’ humor as Jack finds himself imbedded in nearly everything going on in town. The relationships between Jack’s parents and himself are enough to fill a book, but author Gantos has woven an entire town’s worth of personalities and interactions together seamlessly. Continue reading History Turns Into Itself in This Newbery Winner
Glass Slipper, Gold Sandal: A Worldwide Cinderella by Paul Fleischman; illustrated by Julie Paschkis
In Fleischman’s book, stories from countries world-wide are pieced together to create the single story of Cinderella, told from beginning to end despite the sometimes incongruous pieces. A sweet, beautiful girl who is mistreated but makes her way to meet the prince, falls in love, and lives happily ever after, albeit sometimes with golden sandals and sometimes with diamond anklets.
Paschkis’ illustrations are reminiscent of wood block prints alternating between descriptive narrative illustrations and background images of ethnic food, clothing, and creatures. Bright, bold pictures pop off the page, and each ethnic section is stacked on others, appearing almost quilt-like in its narrative arc. Paschkis did a good job of keeping images relevant to the text and bringing up cultural differences that children will delight in pointing out. Continue reading A Multi-Cultural Cinderella
The Son of Neptune by Rick Riordan
Really? you must be asking yourselves. Rick Riordan? Hasn’t the whole world pretty much reviewed his books, like, years ago?
But hey, I loved the books! (Also, I’d rather review The Son of Neptune than clean my room.)
On the off chance that nobody here has read (or heard of) the Percy Jackson series, here’s a brief overview: ancient Greek gods and goddesses are real, and they never disappeared–they’ve followed the rise of Western culture and currently reside on Mt. Olympus over the Empire State Building. Percy Jackson–main character, obviously–discovers he’s a “hero” or Greek “demigod”, a half-mortal, and his father is Poseidon, which turns out to be problematic. After a brief time at Camp Half Blood, he and his new friends are off on a quest full of mythical beasts, minor deities, and worldwide catastrophe. It’s rollicking good fun, incredibly smart, and impressively accurate on the ancient history/mythology level. Alas, after five books, the series was done.
But wait! There’s more! Continue reading Oh my Zeus! Is that a Greek god in that book?!
Underground: Find the Light to Freedom written and illustrated by Shane W. Evans
In this unique picture book, Evans explores the emotional and physical journey of fugitive slaves running to freedom in pre-emancipation America. Evans pairs short, direct sentences (nineteen in all) with bold pictures in contrasting colors: dark blue with white and yellow, orange with brown and green. The portrayals of the trials of escaped slaves as well as a gratefulness for the help of others is achieved in absolute minimalism with phrases like “The darkness,” “the fear,” “Some don’t make it,” “the sun.” His beautiful illustrations pair well with the brief narration, and overall the book is successful and triumphant.
So here’s the problem: while other reviewers recommended Underground for ages through grade 3, I had a really hard time determining intended age range. The language is so simple it might be annoying to older readers, while the emotional and historical concepts behind the narration would be too old for younger kids. That said, it’s definitely worth using if an appropriate unit can be found, whether used as an Continue reading Bold, Beautiful Picture Book on the Underground Railroad
Aliens on Vacation by Clete Barrett Smith (The Intergalactic Bed & Breakfast series, Book One)
My name is Jenny, and I have a problem: I read too many books.
Okay, so there’s no such thing as “too many books”, but I certainly read more than I’m able to review regularly. Aliens on Vacation became one of my many victims–a book I loved but did not write about, a book I read prior to its publication back in May. My apologies to Mr. Smith! With that said…
Aliens on Vacation by Clete Smith is a fun romp with science fiction, summer vacation, the Pacific Northwest, and a thirteen-year-old boy named Scrub who can’t believe he’ll be spending the summer with his grandmother. When Scrub arrives at his grandma’s Intergalactic Bed & Breakfast, an old house covered in brightly painted stars, spaceships, and planets, he thinks that his summer is doomed for boredom and geekiness. Meeting his hippy grandmother for the first time doesn’t help the feeling, and when he realizes there’s no internet, he knows it’s going to be a long vacation. Little does Scrub know, the B&B isn’t for Trekkies and science-fiction fanatics: it’s actually a vacation spot for alien visitors from across the galaxy! Soon Scrub finds himself helping Grandma costume aliens of every shape, size, and attitude (some are very cranky customers indeed!) so the aliens can enjoy their “primitive” surroundings in the local town and forests without being discovered. Continue reading Summer Vacation with Aliens & a Hippy Grandma
Acting Up by Ted Staunton
In this coming-of-age novel, Sam Foster is an eleventh-grade boy trying to face the ever-changing life in his small, Canadian hometown of Hope Springs. Maturity is the ever-important word as Sam tries to convince his parents that he can handle the responsibilities of a driver’s license and house-sitting, all the while trying to balance his spunky, anarchist girlfriend; his goofball buddies; school work; volunteer time at the library; and a coerced participation in the school play. At times funny (and can you say hilarious-but-awkward?), Staunton strikes a believable chord as the characters develop. The situations Sam finds himself in are realistic, hilarious, and embarrassing all at once, and even the adults in the book have are wacky enough keep the reader interested. Teenagers–guys especially!–will relate to Sam’s mishaps, crazy cohorts, and even crazier adult mentors as he struggles to find balance in the turmoil of becoming a so-called “grown up”.
Acting Up is the third in a trilogy focusing on Sam’s town and the people in it, a further development of Sam’s character as a growing teenager. Mostly comic with relate-able, embarrassing situations and a cast of characters trying to figure out what they want and how to communicate with one another, it also has a few deeper notes that lend some weight to the story. Though the theme of “maturity” is often overpowering and the outcomes of some plot points are a bit predictable, Staunton’s overall story and creative collection of teenage adventures and catastrophes makes it a good, solid read. Sam is every-guy in any-town (albeit Canadian), and his miscommunications, misunderstandings, and personal goals relate to the shared experience of teenage life. If you enjoy “real world” fiction, this will make a good summer read. Continue reading Sometimes Maturity Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up To Be
Relic Master: The Dark City by Catherine Fisher (Book One)
In the world of Anara, members of the Order have been outcast and are hunted down daily by the Watch, a governing body that warns the people against the superstitions and trickery of the Order. Despite the dangers, Masters continue to shield the magical relics–seemingly mystic technology–left by the Makers, gods from long ago. Since the darkness came and the Order’s citadel fell to ruin, life is dangerous, and it is difficult to know who to trust.
In The Dark City, the first in Catherine Fisher’s new four-part series, relic master Galen Horn and his sixteen-year-old apprentice Raffi are interrupted one night with a message from a mysterious rider: a new relic has been found. Galen, who lost his powers in an accident, is eager to search out the center of all Maker powers with the hope of being healed; Raffi is still learning and scared, and he knows that the dangers of their journey are very real.
Soon on their travels they realize they are being followed and discover Carys–secretly a spy for the oppressive Watch–and invite her to join them, though they withhold their natures and purpose. Eventually their journey leads them into the dark city of Tasceron in search of the Crow, an ancient magical being that Galen hopes can heal him. Constantly in danger and on the run, they learn more about each other and question beliefs on trust, loyalty, faith, and the things they value most. A twist at the end will leave the reader grabbing for more as we, the educated outsiders, start to understand things that the characters themselves do not. (Admit it: it’s always fun to figure things out and feel smarter than the main characters!) Continue reading A Four-Part Epic Saga Begins
Dad and Pop: An Ode to Fathers & Stepfathers by Kelly Bennett, illustrated by Paul Meisel
Okay, I’ll admit it: I have a soft spot for this book. Not only does it resemble my family and the way I grew up, but it’s also one of the few books I’ve found about divorce (indirect though it may be) that shows it doesn’t have to be bad. Sometimes things don’t work out the way we plan, but it can mean good things in the end, like a bigger family with more people to love.
It also helps that the main character has red hair. Yes, you got it out of me: I’m a carrot top.
Bennett writes from the perspective of a little girl who has two fathers via divorce, but unlike the usual “dealing with divorce” books, hers is positive and upbeat. It’s a message for kids with step-parents about the importance of family, and it focuses on the greatness behind personal differences.
Meisel’s colorful watercolor illustrations are a great match for Bennett’s text, and they keep the comparisons between “Dad” and “Pop” fun and light. Each set of facing pages depicts the two fathers, one on each side, in a different activity with their daughter. One parent likes to ride his bike (a mountain bicycle); the other one does too (a motorcycle)! Continue reading Divorce Doesn’t Mean Bad
Beautiful Yetta: The Yiddish Chicken by Daniel Pinkwater; illustrated by Jill Pinkwater
Maybe I liked this book because it reminded me of my grandparents, but I’m pretty sure I also just really, really enjoyed it.
Beautiful Yetta is the multi-lingual story of a chicken who has escaped a fate at the butchers only to end up lost on the streets of Brooklyn, much different from her normal farm life. Initially ostracized by rats and pigeons, Yetta saves a wild parrot from a cat and becomes a welcome member of the parrot colony.
The story is unique as each character speaks their own language (Yiddish, Spanish, and English) with accompanying phonetic spellings for Hebrew and Spanish characters as well as English translations. (A phonetic Hebrew and Yiddish alphabet chart is included, presumably for adults, on the last page.) It’s a great way to introduce young children to other cultures and languages, though as Daniel Pinkwater says, “it doesn’t mean to be a Rosetta Stone,” Colorful and geometric illustrations, which often take the place of narration, are important to the progression of the plot, and the bright images fit well with the lively narrative as it flits back and forth from one language to another.
If this book is up your alley, be sure to check out a recording of Pinkwater reading Beautiful Yetta aloud, complete with accents and laughter, on NPR’s Weekend Edition (August 14, 2010).
Image from www.kveller.com