Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z.

Gianna is just about as scattered as the autumn leaves that she is supposed to be collecting for her science project. Deadlines are just so hard! The only time that her head is clear is when she is out running. Unfortunately, her next track meet could be in jeopardy because of her science project. Her coach lets Gianna know that if she doesn’t turn in her leaf project on time, she will not be running in the sectional meet!

Thankfully Gianna does have some help. Her best friend Zig is pretty much the opposite of Gianna. Organized to a fault, he tries to get Gianna back on track by taking her out on a bike ride and hike that should have Gianna all set.

But Gianna’s dreamy nature, a back stabbing classmate, and some serious troubles at home with her Nonna may just be too much for Gee to handle.

Kate Messner has written a poignant novel about family, friendship, and change. Gianna is so close to her Nonna, and the possible onset of Alzheimer’s is a reality that many families face, but not many kids get to read about in a relevant way. Messner handles this weighty topic with grace. Gianna is a lovely mix of a dreamer, an artist, and an advocate. Messner also excels in her descriptions of Gianna’s Vermont town as well as the market in Montreal. I lived in Montreal for a couple of years during grad school, and the pages describing it had me yearning to go back! Gianna is a girl who readers would like to meet again.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

A Long Way From Chicago

Call me old fashioned, but this is the kind of story telling that I love. Filled with larger than life characters and slices of Americana, Richard Peck’s stories of Grandma Dowdel are ripe for reading aloud and reading again!

Joey and Mary Alice were shipped off from Chicago to their Grandmother’s house every August starting when Joey was 9 years old. As Joey said, “Being Chicago people, Mother and Dad didn’t have a car. And Grandma wasn’t on the telephone.” (p. 4) so Joey and Mary Alice would be put on the train and sent on to Grandma’s place.

Grandma Dowdel is a big woman who is incredibly self-sufficient. It’s 1929 when the stories start, and Joey and Mary Alice are mad that their folks wouldn’t let them parade past Al Capone’s bullet ridden corpse in Chicago. Little did they know that they’d be sitting in a room with a corpse when they hit Grandma Dowdel’s place. Turns out that Shotgun Cheatham died, and because of his name, some of the bigger newspapers took a liking to his obituary and wanted to find out just exactly who this fellow was. Grandma is the type of woman who likes to keep to herself, but when she hears that folks have been making up all kinds of stories about Shotgun, she lets Joey and Mary Alice in on the kind of man that Shotgun really was.

Then the reporter shows up at her door, and Joey and Mary Alice get a taste of the adventures in store living with Grandma. No sooner does she discount the story that folks in town have told the reporter, but she is spinning a yarn so deep that the kids simply can’t believe it. And the kicker is that they are now sitting in Grandma’s front room, with Shotgun’s corpse laid out for the town and the reporter to see.

This first story gets readers ready and on the edge of their seats for the rest. From make-shift wakes, to out pranking the Halloween pranksters, to beating the law at every turn, Grandma Dowdel will have readers chuckling and gasping out loud. Old fashioned everyday gardening, canning, hunting, community events, and life without the distraction of media pepper the text along with the realities of the Depression era. Wonderfully written, these stories beg to be read aloud. I can’t wait to read the next installment about the family that moves on in next to Grandma!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Gifted: Out of Sight, Out of Mind

In Out of Sight, Out of Mind, readers are introduced to Queen Bee meanie Amanda Beeson. Amanda is the stereotypical you-know-what. She is obsessed with labels, clothing and tearing other kids down. She has her own little posse of wannabes, but she makes sure that her position is always in tact. She tries so hard to be who she is that she has little time for pathetic kids like Tracey Devon. She is way too skinny, her plain Jane clothes barely fit her, and she doesn’t even stand up for herself when Amanda ridicules her to her face! Amanda has no idea why Tracey is in the gifted class at school…she’s not even that smart.

What nobody knows, however, is just why Amanda is so mean. If she does allow herself to feel any empathy or sympathy for anyone, she loses herself. She actually slips into the other person for a little while, and she hates how that feels. Thus the armor.

What she doesn’t count on is feeling sorry for Tracey Devon of all people. And then waking up in her body. Amanda feels trapped. She has never totally overtaken somebody before. What is she going to do, and more importantly, how is she going to reclaim herself? This is no Freaky Friday switch…Amanda is still existing as Amanda, she’s simply also existing as Tracey.

When she gets to school in her loser body, Amanda follows Tracey’s schedule and finds that it’s pretty easy to blend in. In fact nobody even seems to see her. When she ends up in the gifted class, she is surprised by the mish mash of kids who are there. What could they possible have in common?

After a clunky start, the story gets going. The haphazard background of Amanda’s prior out of body experiences could probably be left out all together. After that is out of the way, readers will enjoy a slightly supernatural mean girl story. Once introduced to the other kids in the gifted class, readers will wonder what all of the powers are. The ominous warnings of their teacher Madame, will keep them guessing as to who will show up next to try to exploit some of the kids powers. A fun series that will hook tween girls who want something scary and romantic that isn’t too much of either of those things.

Friday, July 17, 2009


It’s 1851, and Amelia her mother Sophie, and her mother’s companion Estelle have just made the journey from Boston to San Francisco. The journey was most difficult for Estelle, who suffered from seasickness the entire time. Amelia, however, had befriended some of the sailors and learned a thing or two about tying knots.

As their ship, the Unicorn, makes its way into the harbor, Amelia’s sailor friend Jim asks her to make herself useful. She helps Jim by tying up the bundles of newspapers he has with him. Amelia is surprised to find that the newspapers are from the east and are 3 months old. She soon learns that folks in California are hungry for news back east and will pay a pretty penny for it.

Once Amelia and her family are on dry land, Amelia’s mother reveals that the journey over was much more expensive than she had planned for. When Amelia goes to find a cart to help them haul their belongings, she has a brainstorm. She unpacks her dress shoes that are wrapped in a newspaper. A newspaper that is indeed newer than the ones that she bundled up and the newsboys were currently selling. When Amelia takes up on a street corner to sell her lone paper, she soon finds out that one kid, especially a girl, can’t sell in Julius’ turf. She is quickly and physically taken out of the game.

Amelia finds it difficult to be one of only a handful of women around. Yes it’s nice that all of the women gravitate toward each other and help each other out, but how is Amelia to help her family if all of the jobs from newsboy to printer’s devil are for boys?

Maybe Amelia would be better off as a boy.

Liza Ketchum has written a rip-roaring piece of historical fiction that will captivate all readers. Amelia’s intrepid nature and the vast chaos of San Francisco in the 1850s are fascinating. Sophie and Estelle are obviously partners, though Ketchum’s treatment of the relationship is simply matter of fact, and the book never strays into lesson territory. It is more of a scandal that Sophie never married. The action is non-stop, and readers will delight in Amelia’s adventures, whether they be up in the sky, down in the streets, or along the journey.

Hands down my favorite read so far this year.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Rapacia: The Second Circle of Heck

Milton has successfully managed to get back to the “Stage” leaving Marlo and his friends down there. He is racked with guilt, and isn’t quite sure that Heck really even existed. Since Heck is ultimately a purgatory, Milton decides to go visit Damian in the hospital to figure out if everything that he thinks happened after the fateful marshmallow explosion actually did happen!

Meanwhile, Marlo has been moved to Rapacia – the second circle of Heck which is overseen by the Grabbit; a rhyming, mechanical bunny of sorts. The kicker is that the Grabbit’s warren is located just beneath the best mall ever. Mallvana has everything that a greedy little shoplifter like Marlo could ever want. If only she could convince her demon teachers to let her go there.

Well Marlo is Marlo, and who better to deal with demons and double crossers than she? Along with her passel of frenemies (Lyon, Bordeaux, Norm, and Jordie) Marlo is forced to wear the latest in retirement fashion, and take classes in heckonomics. Marlo isn’t surprised by much in Heck, but she soon finds herself under the Grabbit’s spell. She is jonesing to shoplift in a big way, and only to bring the spoils to her new Vice Principal. When she is approached to make the biggest heist in Heck history (the hopeless diamonds), how can she refuse? Will Marlo be able to break free of the Grabbit, or will she simply become another minion in the race to get more, more, more?

Daly E. Basye has written a darker follow up to the initial installment in the Heck series. Instead of poop and ping-pong balls, readers are exploring cultish religions, the idea of Greed with a capital “G”, as well as pondering the difference between want and need. Don’t get me wrong…it is still pun central here in Heck with references that run the sublime to the absurd, it just seems that the audience for the second book needs a maturity level a bit higher than required for Heck: Where the Bad Kids Go. Marlo has the seeds of a crush going, and even though Heck is a place where time stands still, Marlo, Milton and the other kids are growing world weary from trying to “survive”. I am interested in seeing where this series goes, since there are, after all, 7 circles you know where.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Freaky Monday

Mary Rodgers and screen writer Heather Hach team up for this loose companion to Freaky Friday with hilarious results. Hadley is a stressed out middle schooler living in the shadow of her picture perfect sister. Tatum looks like a goddess, is super nice, and seems to have everyone under her spell. Hadley on the other hand, lives for good grades, has her path to the Ivy Leagues all mapped out, and has hair that just hangs there.

Hadley just switched planners to the Super Student Planner Plus and somehow managed to space out and not write in the fact that her oral presentation on To Kill a Mockingbird is due TODAY. Hadley is freaking out so badly that her two best friends Soup and Nan can’t even sympathize. Hadley’s only hope is appealing to her hippie dippy teacher Ms. Pitt’s (call me Carol) granola like nature. Maybe she’ll cut Hadley a break.


From the title we all knew what was coming, we just didn’t know who. Well this time it’s Hadley and Ms. Pitt who are presto-chango existing in each other’s bodies and desperately trying to find out how to switch back before a) Miss Pitt has her English Chair interview with the School Board and b) Hadley goes to the I Hate Monday dance and hopefully talks to dreamy Zane.

This author combination really works. The dialogue is spot on and laugh-out-loud funny. Even though Hadley is an intense girl and her constant comparing herself with her sister borders on annoying, she never crosses into that territory. Hadley learns that maybe Tatum isn’t quite as perfect as she seems, and perhaps she herself needs to lighten up a bit, and see herself as others do. Ms. Pitt, on the other hand, could take a lesson in time management and realizing that she can’t be the best teacher for everyone.


Thursday, July 02, 2009

When You Reach Me

Here is the buzz book of the year (so far, anyway). The arc sat around in my library closet for a long time. I’m not sure why I didn’t pick it up right away; it could have been the quiet cover or the time setting of 1978. What I realized was that I needed to read this book all in one sitting.

Miranda is at that 6th grade period in her life where all of the shifting seems to happen. Her best-friend Sal doesn’t want to hang out anymore, she’s noticing the shabbiness of her apartment for the first time, and the fact that her mother named her after a criminal is really bugging her. The two constants in her life are the laughing man hanging out under her mailbox, and the battered copy of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time that Miranda carries around everywhere that she goes.

Once Sal has ditched her, Miranda fortunately notices that two girls in her class Julia and Annemarie seem to be in a fight. Miranda sagely notes that “…The girls at school had been hurting each other’s feeling for years…I had watched them trade best friends, start wars, cry, trade back, make treaties, squeal and grab each other’s arms in this fake excited way, et cetera, et cetera…”(arc p.33). Miranda decides to capitalize on the girl’s fight and ask Annemarie to lunch. She accepts and Miranda’s 6th grade year takes on a decidedly different feel. Annemarie, Miranda and Colin get a job at the local sub shop, Miranda and Annemarie have sleep overs, and Miranda develops her first crush.

This all sounds very realistic fiction, right? Wrong. At the same time is running a subplot that involves mysterious notes and time travel. I know, right? Interestingly enough, I have recently read a YA book dealing with parallel universes (Bray’s Going Bovine), and watched a documentary (Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives) about eels frontman Mark Oliver Everette’s father’s work in quantum physics. It’s sometimes fascinating how these things all seem to come together at once.

Looking this over, I realize that this isn’t much of an informative blurb. Many before me have noted the difficulty in summing up this book. I am going to be interested to see which kids take to When You Reach Me. There have been many adults who have finished the last page and uttered a “hmm”, and immediately flipped back to the start. I would particularly like to see the reaction from young people who are recent readers of L’Engle’s work.

Refreshingly different and filled with insight, Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me is part mystery, part slice-of-life, and part science fiction. It has the feel of the kind of book that is going to stand the test of time. (I wonder if my 67 year old self will agree!)