It’s Milking Time by Phyllis Alsdurf, illustrated by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher
In the interest of full disclosure, I feel I should tell you something: I fell in love with It’s Milking Time before I opened it.
Based on author Phyllis Alsdurf’s own childhood on a Midwestern dairy farm, this book has a lyrical story, a description of the daily chores a daughter shares with her father each evening as they milk and take care of their cows. Each two-page spread is a beautiful illustration that supports Alsdurf’s simple, straightforward narrative, a step-by-step introduction to evening tasks on a small family dairy farm. The story goes beyond that, though, sharing not only chores but the loving relationship between a father and daughter as well as the relationship between humans and animals.
So you won’t think I’m overly infatuated with this book (and maybe I am), I’ll let you in on a secret: I showed this book to an authentic dairy farm girl, and she loved it too. My soon-to-be Mother in Law grew up on her father’s Wisconsin dairy farm, and she gave It’s Milking Time her official seal of approval and accuracy. Continue reading A Beautiful & Authentic Midwestern Picture Book
Cheesie Mack is Not a Genius or Anything by Steve Cotler; illustrated by Adam McCauley
You would think that graduating from the 5th grade would be a piece of cake after the school year itself, but Cheesie Mack’s life is anything but boring. When Cheesie and his best friend Georgie find an old envelope with mysterious contents, they decide to track down the owner. When it turns out that the things they found are valuable, they must make a decision between doing the right thing and having the coolest summer ever. On top of that, “Goon” (Cheesie’s yucky older sister) is always trying to make him look dumb, his best friend Georgie can’t afford to go to their annual summer camp, and the mystery they’re trying to solve involves a haunted house. Things are getting complicated!
Cheesie is a curious kid and a great character, always looking to learn something new about the world and ready to share his information, whether it’s a list of the differences between frogs and toads, illustrations of pennies and secret hideouts, efficient breathing techniques for winning bike races, or ways to gross out your sister. (Feel free to check out his website to help add to his archive of facts: www.cheesiemack.com!) Full of funny comments from a young, probing mind, Cheesie Mack is a fun romp through fact and fiction, and author Steve Cotler won me over with the believability of his characters. The book’s narrative is paired with Cheesie’s own illustrations to help the story along (maps, caricatures, instruction guides, etc.), and together they bring you into the mindset of a regular, inquisitive boy. Continue reading Curious Kids and Summer Adventures
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
Ashfall by Mike Mullin
(Review based on ARC of the book.)
In this thrilling, debut novel of “cataclysmic natural disaster,” Alex Halprin lives in modern-day Cedar Falls, Idaho, playing video games and arguing with his little sister on a regular basis. One day when his family has left for the weekend to visit an uncle, the unthinkable happens: Yellowstone erupts in a volcanic super-eruption, leaving thousands of miles under layers of ash and projectile rock with no modern form of communication and few resources for immediate survivors. Alex begins the harrowing journey to Warren, Illinois, where his family is–he hopes–safely harbored with other relatives.
Alex’s journey is laborious and often heart wrenching as he cross-country skis through the ash. He makes his way through cities, towns, and open, desolated land, meeting friends and strangers alike and finds himself running from cutthroat murderers, looters, and others like him just trying to survive. At one stop, Alex passes out from injuries and ends up at a farm where strangers Darla and her mother nurse him back to health; a steady relationship begins to bond the two teenagers. When tragedy strikes again and forces them back on the road, Darla accompanies Alex on his journey to Illinois, and they continue to skirt danger, both environmental and man-made. Continue reading Yellowstone Erupts: The Apocalypse is Now
Annexed by Sharon Dogar
In Amsterdam in the middle of World War II, two Jewish families–the Franks and the Van Pels–hide away in an annex above an office, praying for survival and the downfall of the Nazis. In Annexed, Dogar has created her vision of what it was like in the annex with Anne Frank from Peter van Pels’ point of view. To take a time and character so closely scrutinized by the world and so well documented–by the world-renowned diary of Anne Frank–is a challenge, to say the least, but Dogar has done a good job at not over-sensationalizing the material. She also manages to stay true to what she believes might have gone through the mind of a teenage boy in a time of personal and world-wide crisis. Following Peter from the morning before seclusion to his death (potentially, according to records, in a concentration camp sick bay), readers see the hope and the despair, two sides of many moments he experienced as his memories are shared in the book.
Full of hate and fear, love, shame, sexual longing, wavering faith, and all the “why” questions one could ponder, Peter examines life both inside and outside the walls of the annex and tries to make sense of it all, all the while experiencing the morphing relationships inside the hideout as tensions flow between the families and genders. Why, Peter asks, must I hide instead of fight? Why do we have to be the chosen people? Why does being Jewish have to define everything about me? Will I ever experience life beyond this point? Continue reading Anne Frank’s World Re-Visited
Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly
(Review based on ARC of the book.)
You’ve got to respect a historical fiction novel for teens that has three pages of bibliography.
In this emotional whirlwind of a book, an American high school student–lost in despair over the death of her younger brother and the mental instability of her mother–finds herself through music and the history of the French revolution.
Andi is the equivalent of a musical prodigy, and when her brother dies, music is the only thing besides caring for her mother that keeps her going. (The anti-depressants help, but only just.) She’s flunking out of her private school, and she gets an ultimatum: complete a well-orchestrated senior thesis or don’t graduate.
Andi’s dad sweeps her off to Paris, hoping she can focus on graduation while he tests a 200-year-old heart for proof that it belonged to the dauphin, son of Marie-Antoinette. In the process, Andi discovers a hidden diary belonging to another 17-year-old girl, Alexandrine Paradis, the daughter of a puppeteer, who finds herself companion to the dauphin right before the start of the French revolution. Andi’s depression continues to rise and fall, and she gets pulled into Alexandrine’s story of pain, faith, and hope as Alex tries to survive the bloody massacres of her time and save the child prince. As Alex writes, “They are a truthful account of these bitter, bloody days.” Andi finds herself absorbed in the past, so much so that one night she finds herself thrown into the horror of Alexandrine’s world, unsure of what is dream and what is reality. Continue reading An Amazing Whirlwind of Emotions and History
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
The Uninvited by Tim Wynne-Jones
I picked this book while randomly scrounging the teen shelves at the local library, and I’m really glad I did.
In this emotional, whirlwind drama, Mimi is a spunky film student at NYU who has an affair with a married professor. When she breaks it off, he takes a turn for obsession and Mimi runs far, far away to her father’s “house on the snye,” a small, unoccupied cottage in Canada. Her plan: work on a new screen play, ignore all calls from her ex, and get some quality alone time. When she arrives, however, she discovers that she is not alone–already living there is Jay, a music graduate student who just happens to be a half brother Mimi never knew she had, another product of her run-around artist father. Despite the emotional tangle, Mimi decides to stay, and she and Jay build a close bond.
All is not well, though, as Jay has been dealing with harassment at the Snye–break-ins, a snake skin on his pillow, a dead bird placed at his doorstep, new inclusions in his music recordings. Enter player three in this dramatic triangle: Cramer, a local, poor, early twenties guy working overtime to take care of his manic-depressive mother, all the while trying to connect silently with the guy he knows (privately) to be his half-brother, Jay. Continue reading Real-life Drama with a Kick