Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Nothing but the Truth, by Avi

Ninth-grader Philip Malloy thinks about one thing: track. His ambition to be in the Olympics keeps him running (geddit?). And his love for running brings on a chain of events that is different from what he first imagined.

Philip hates English class (and homeroom). He hates his English (and homeroom) teacher, Miss Narwin, because she can't take a joke. And when the winter term exams roll around, she gives him a D on the report card due to his disrespectful, mocking answers on the exam, as well for his lazy work in class.

That one D changes everything.

A few days later, Philip tries to sign up to join the track team, but is denied because of his grades: his English grade, to be specific. The rule is that to join a sports team, you have to have a passing grade in every class, and a D is not considered a passing grade. Philip, outraged by the act that he can't join the team, searches for a way to get transferred out of her classes. He finds a way very quickly. 

Every day, in Philip's high school, Harrison High, during homeroom, a tape of "The Star-Spangled Banner" is played on the sound system. Every morning, just before the tape is played, the principal, Dr. Doane, says "Please all rise and stand at respectful, silent attention for the playing of our national anthem." 

On Wednesday, March 28, during the playing of the tape, Philip starts to hum along. Not loud, just to himself. Miss Narwin yells at him to stop, so he does. For two more days, he does the same thing -- he hums along with the tape -- and he gets suspended from school for two days for not following school policy of standing for the Pledge in "respectful silence."

While on suspension, Philip's father takes him over to their neighbor's house at the moment their neighbor is talking to a reporter about the upcoming school board election. Their neighbor invites them in, and Philip and his father tell the reporter about the suspension, and the reason why.

The next day, an article appears in the newspaper, in the school section. The title reads "Suspended for Patriotism." 

Over the course of a few days, the story is spread all over the country, on the news, in the papers, and on the radio. It seems that the whole nation wants to hear about the kid whose teacher suspended him for his sense of patriotism. Letters and telegrams arrive for both Miss Narwin and Philip, from all over. Miss Narwin receives hate-mail, while Philip receives letters of support. 

But somewhere along the line, the story has gotten twisted. What is the truth, and what are the lies?

Nothing But The Truth is a fantastic story about the multiple sides to one event. Philip tells his side of the story first, so whoever wasn't a witness to the event believes him. People believe what they're told, and have an irritating habit of not checking the facts before they spread a story. After a while, the spreading of his version of the story has consequences he does not intend.

Perhaps what is the most unique part of Avi's novel is the style of the writing. Much of it is formatted like the script for a play. Plus, there are images of memos, newspaper articles, discussions, diary inserts, and letters mixed in. This "documentary novel" is different -- it's not just paragraphs put together into chapters like most novels --  but is great for ages 11+. There is no profanity, aside from one use of the "b" word. 

Does it sound intriguing to you? If so, go ahead and read it. But before you do, one question:
"Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?"

Daddy's afterthoughts:  This is an amazing non-traditional novel. Actually, for kids who have cut their teeth on books like the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, where the text is a melange of prose, snippets and excerpts of documents, drawings, etc... this particular way of cobbling together 150 or so pages of text should not at all be disorienting. What Avi calls a "documentary novel" is really a version of an epistolary novel, and there are a lot of other contemporary examples for tween and teen readers. What I love most about this book, more than the way the consequences of Philip's actions and choices snowball, is the final dozen of so words of the novel. I won't spoil them, so don't be tempted to read the last page first (as some are wont to do), but save the last few sentences for the impact they will certainly have.

Monday, April 30, 2018

I Am Princess X, by Cherie Priest

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Libby and May have been friends since the fifth grade. Libby is a great artist. May is a good writer, but she can't draw for crap. She says so herself.

Their friendship isn't the only thing that started in the fifth grade. Princess X started there too. She wears a pink dress, red Chucks, a crown, and carries a katana. She lives on a hill, in a haunted house, and has ghosts as friends. She started as a sidewalk drawing, and eventually morphed into a full-fledged character. Libby and May have written and drawn hundreds of Princess X comics.

And then, one night, Libby's mother is in a car, driving over a bridge, with a rushing river underneath. Libby is with her. The car goes over the side, into the water, and Libby dies.

Three years pass, and now May is sixteen, lonely, filled with longing for her friend, and haunted by dreams that say that Libby didn't die that night, that she broke free, and swam to the surface. But May doesn't believe herself.

Until she sees the sticker on the window of a building about to be demolished.

Is it possible? Can it be? The sticker is Princess X! But how? Libby is dead... isn't she?

Princess X stickers, Princess X patches, and Princess X graffiti art start popping up everywhere. But the most intriguing of all is a webcomic on a website called May starts to see more and more connections between the webcomic and Libby's "death." 

Because Libby is alive. What May's dreams have been telling her is true. Well, maybe.

I Am Princess X shows just how far a friendship can go. May doesn't give up on Libby when everyone else thinks her dead. May struggles to prove that Libby is alive. Throughout the story, May collects clues and makes shocking discoveries, all in an effort to solve the mystery of Libby's disappearance. And May shows us one thing: When the world tells you to give up, to quit trying, don't.

I first read this book when I was around 10, and I loved it. I read it over and over. I just pulled it off the shelf after a year or two, and it definitely is for a slightly younger reader, ages 9-11, maybe 12. I still liked it, but I have moved on to more grown-up books. Still, it was fin to re-read. The book is definitely "cool" - the artwork is cool, two of the characters are hackers, and this will appeal to a lot of readers. Just read it before you outgrow it!
Daddy's afterthoughts: This was Julia's favorite book for a good six months after I bought it for her (that's a long time, for her...) when she was 10 or 11. Everything from the colors of the artwork, the strange fusion of novel and graphic novel styles, to the hacker-chic aesthetic, to the quirky style of Princess X's getup and X's super-cool Powerpuff Girls-esque bravado and stance simply screamed "high-interest." I wonder if the title will scare away male readers; if so, it should not. Boy or girl, whether your bag is anime, superheroes, or cartoons of the Powerpuff Girls' extended universe variety (Powerpuff Girls, Dexter's Laboratory, Samurai Jack) and the like, this book will be a hit. Yes, it almost certainly was written to target tween girls (say 10-12-ish), but that should not stop anyone who likes this kind of storytelling.

Doll Bones, by Holly Black

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Zach, Poppy, and Alice have played a make-believe game (which has no name) together for years. Their game uses action figures as the characters, and a bone china doll whom they call the Great Queen. The Great Queen has the power to curse anyone who displeases her, well, in the game anyway. 

But Zach's father thinks that Zach should "grow up" and stop playing with action figures and play more basketball instead. Zach's father decides to take matters into his own hands, and throws all of the action figures into the trash without telling Zach, while Zach is in school.

When Zach gets home after school and realizes his figures are gone, he gets mad. And then he realizes that without his figures, he can't play the game anymore! This is terrible! Zach and the girls are the best of friends, and this has been their tradition for years. What can he do?

Zach decides to lie to Alice and Poppy about why he can't play. He simply tells them that he doesn't want to play anymore. After that, ties are split for a while, until... 

A few days later, Poppy announces that she's been dreaming about the Great Queen; she dreamed that the Queen was actually the ghost of a little girl named Eleanor, and that Eleanor had told Poppy that her spirit needed to rest. But that can't happen until the doll is laid into Eleanor's empty grave.

The grave is empty because Eleanor's father took her bones and made them into the doll. 

The three friends go on an adventure to East Liverpool, Ohio (the location of the grave), by boat and bus, in hope of finally letting Eleanor's spirit rest, and on the way, they discover things that they never knew about each other...

Doll Bones is (yet another) novel about a trio of friends going on an adventure. The author perhaps borrowed the "haunted doll" thing from the "Child's Play" movie series (?), except this doll doesn't kill anyone. Not that kind of book.

The book is a bit creepy, and the front cover illustration makes it look like a horror novel. This book would fall under the "horror" category... if you were eight years old. For anyone over eight, this novel will be a suspenseful adventure story. Doll Bones may give you a feeling, a leering feeling, like there is just something there, waiting for you... 


Daddy's afterthoughts:  This 2013 Newberry Honor book is the product of Holly Black, who co-created the Spiderwick Chronicles. This book has been decorated with a veritable slew of awards. It's a spooky read for younger readers, but older pre-teens will like it just fine. But it's not just a creepy-spooky story that involves a haunted or possessed doll; this is also a story about relationships and friendships in the tween years, that awkward time between childhood and teenager-dom. A wonderful read for ages 8-13.

Flash, by Michael Cadnum

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Bruce, 16, and Milton, 18, are brothers, and the type of high schoolers that always get into trouble. Bruce gets into fights, and Milton gets arrested. In fact, Milton and Bruce are planning a robbery even though Milton hasn’t even had a trial from his last crime. But it's not what you think... they're not "bad" guys.

When they get to the bank that they want to rob, Bruce gets out of the car that they used to get there, and which will also act as their getaway car, and everything seems to go fine. Until Bruce tears out of the bank, with a practically empty sack, and tells Milton to drive. They get 3 blocks away when the bag explodes. The teller had sneaked a dye bomb into the bag. And now they have useless money, and were covered in neon green dye.

They bury the evidence in their backyard. But they haven’t buried the soiled wealth unnoticed, though. Terrence, an “almost legally blind” neighbor, has heard them and recorded their conversation while out bird-watching. (Actually, he doesn’t really “watch” them. Since he is nearly blind, all he can do is record their songs and the sounds they make. But his is why he has his recording equipment with him.)

Bruce and Milton know that they are in trouble, because Terrence had been recording birds while they were burying the money, and Terrence may have recorded their conversation too. What Bruce and Milton didn’t know was that Terrence told his girlfriend, Nina, and her brother, Carraway, a soldier back home from the War after surviving a tank explosion in Iraq. Carraway is “a stickler for law and order.” Carraway knows that Bruce and Milton attempted to rob a bank, because Terrence told him. And he’s not too happy about it.

The dust jacket says that Flash is based on an actual robbery that the author witnessed. I liked the way the narration is in the third person, but the point of view switches from seeing Nina’s side, to Milton’s side, to Terrence’s side, and back again, as if someone were recording their thoughts and words. The novel talked about the crime from the criminals’ perspective, and I liked that too – it is not something you see a lot: Bruce and Milton are motivated by the need to get money for their family, not just to be "bad guys." Ever since an explosion at the sugar refinery killed their father, their family been very tight on money. The insurance company forced the family to take only 1/3 of the payment they were due. The insurance company knew that he had nothing to do with the accident, and was just ripping the family off. They told them they could take 1/3 or take nothing. What choice did they have? Now they are poor, and their mother is sick (and lacks the money to get proper medical help). 

I found this in a “horror” section in the library... which is weird. This book is not scary, other than the mildly disturbing cover image. Michael Cadnum used a real event to write a “thriller” that in my opinion was not super-thrilling. But don’t let what I say get in the way of if you want to read it, if you like crime thrillers or detective stories, that type of thing. By all means, go right ahead!

 Daddy's afterthoughts: Julia was not especially enthralled with this one, but it's not really her genre of choice. Kirkus rates the book highly, praising its "unpredictable resolution that brings the cast to the end leaves room for reflection on motivation and character in hard times." Bob's Book Blog calls Cadnum's writing "vivid and evocative" and calls it a "brilliant story for teens and reluctant boy readers." Well, Julia is neither a reluctant reader, nor a boy, so maybe that's it. The book is gritty, realistic fiction, not the fantasy and dystopian fare that is de rigueur in YA fiction these days, so if you are looking for something in that vein, there you go.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

The Tale of the Shining Princess, traditional (adapted by Sally Fisher)

Life was dull for the old bamboo cutter and his wife. They were poor, lonely, the old man was overworked, and their life was very dull. Dull that is, until one day when the bamboo cutter noticed that one bamboo stalk was glowing. The old man, bending over for a better look, saw that a 3-inch tall girl was inside the stalk of bamboo!

The old man and his wife had never had any kids, so of course they were pleased. They named the girl Nayotake no Kaguya-hime, the Shining Princess of the Young Bamboo. As the child grew into a young woman (this taking only 3 months), it became clear that she was one of the most beautiful women in the world, so beautiful that she seemed otherworldly.

After a while, the old bamboo cutter decided that it was time for Kaguya-hime to marry. Word of her beauty had spread quickly, and year after year men came to her home if only to catch a glimpse of her. Finally, after many years, all except for 5 of the most determined men had left. These men were Prince Ishizukuri, Prince Kuramochi, the Minister of the Right Abe no Mimuraji, the Grand Counselor Otomo no Miyuki, and the Middle Counselor Isonokami no Marotari. These 5 men each were given a task to prove their devotion to Kaguya-hime. Prince Ishizukuri was sent to find the begging-bowl of the Buddha, Prince Kuramochi was sent to find a jeweled branch of Paradise, the Minister of the Right Abe no Mimuraji needed the robe of Chinese fire-rat fur, the Grand Counselor Otomo no Miyuki was to get a 5-colored jewel from a dragon's head, and the Middle Counselor Isonokami no Marotari was asked to retrieve the easy-birth charm of the swallows

You can probably guess that Kaguya-hime did not want to marry, as the items that she sent the men out to get do not exist. The next 5 chapters describe the journeys of the 5 men; all of the journeys were rough, and most lasted several years. In the end, Kaguya-hime marries none of the men, as a surprising truth about her real identity is revealed.

The Tale of the Shining Princess is an old Japanese legend of this otherworldly woman who comes down to Earth. In this story, there are several poems written by Kaguya-hime and the 5 men mixed in with the storytelling, as well as several beautiful paintings describing the story. The original album of the paintings in the story is in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The original author is unknown, and this version is based off of a translation.

While The Tale of the Shining Princess is not a long story, young people and anyone who has trouble reading foreign languages may stumble over some of the names. But other than that, this legend is great for lovers of mythology (like me)! 

Daddy's afterthoughts: I first found this volume on a shelf of cast away books at a take-a-book-leave-a-book station at a local college. What a treasure. The color plates alone make the book worth owning, Edo-era Japan illustrations of scenes from this thousand-year-old tale, thought to be one of Japan's oldest legends.

This version, published by the Met, contains a text by Sally Fisher, an adaptation of a translation from the Japanese by Donald Keane. The story itself, believed to date back to the 10th century (circa 909, according to Haruo Shirane's Traditional Japanese Literature: An Anthology), but even that telling was itself an embellished iteration of an earlier oral folk narrative, its origins likely lost to antiquity. Curiously, its original (10th century) title was 竹取物語Taketori Monogatari, or "The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter," the emphasis on the male bamboo cutter, and it is perhaps worthy of note that later iterations of the tale bore titles such as "The Tale of Kaguyahime" or this, "the Tale of the Shining Princess," with the focus (more appropriately, perhaps) on Kaguya-hime herself.

On a broader note, I love mythology, and recommend its reading for all age levels, but especially children. No other form of storytelling conveys as much wonder, as much of a sense of what C. S. Lewis called "the numinous" as myth. This particular volume clocks in a 70 paginated pages, making it somewhat longer than your normal short-story-length myth, but much shorter than a novel. Its simplicity makes it a great read for children, but its style and the beauty of the language held me rapt when I first read it as a man of 40 or so years. It's a tough book to find, but thanks to the internet, this volume may be had (secondhand) from a variety of sources.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Flygirl, by Sherri L. Smith

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Ida Mae Jones's biggest dream is to fly. Being happiest in an airplane, she has wanted to fly since she was a child. And there wouldn't be a problem, if she weren't living in the segregated South. No one would give her a license for two reasons: She's Black, and she's a woman. 

When the USA enters WWII, Ida's brother heads off to serve in the Army, leaving his family behind. An Air Force group is formed, known as the Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASP for short. Ida wants to sign up, but would they hire a Black woman? Probably not, except Ida has skin fair enough so she might be able to "pass" as white. So she decides to sign up to be a WASP, and do what she's always wanted to do: fly.

She's accepted, but from the moment she leaves home, Ida is scared that someone will see that she is Black. 

When Ida and the rest of the women arrive at Avenger Field, they are told that the 5-month training course won't be easy, and that about two-thirds of them will wash out by the end of the course. Ida immediately makes two new friends, Pasty Kake and Lily Lowenstein. Throughout their training, these girls help each other out the best they can.

Two days after their arrival, there is the first sign that this course would be hard: two candidates wash out. One or two days later, after a flight test, another woman washes out. The trainees are dropping like flies.

Ida, still worried that someone would notice that her skin tone is a bit darker than everyone else's, has had the good fortune to do well and pass, but how long will her luck last? Will she become a full fledged WASP? Or will she be discovered? She doesn't like pretending to be someone she's not. She doesn't like to lie, even if lying helps her pursue her dream. Deep inside, she feels like she is denying that she is related to the rest of her family by denying her race. Not even the WASP friends she makes know her secret.

WASP was a real program put into place during WWII, a time when most men didn't like to see women in the Army, Navy, or Air Force. It was also a time when women were finally beginning to prove those men wrong. Not all women back then wanted to live a life in the kitchen. Some of them wanted to get out of the house, to see the world. And some of them did.

This historical fiction novel is great for any age able to read a 275-page book, but parents out there should know that there is some discussion in the book of female development (menstruation, pregnancy). 

Ida Mae Jones teaches us that neither race nor gender should keep you from doing what you dream about. But she also teaches us that feeling forced to be something we're not, denying our identity, can be painful.

Daddy's afterthoughtsMulanYentlTootsie, and Terri Griffith (a nod to Just One of the Guys, the cult-classic 80s teen romp directed by my cousin, Lisa Gottlieb). All stories where the stars swap gender to achieve some purpose denied them by some stereotype. But switching races? That's a far sight tougher to pull off: Exhibit #1, 1986's vomit-inducing Soul Man.

Flygirl was published in 2008, seven years before the Rachel Dolezal controversy, ten years before Bruno Mars'. In today's identity-politics driven tweet-first-think-later society, I wonder, if it had been released in 2018 instead of 2008, would Sherri Smith's book would have been hailed as "inspiring" or "beautifully written and resonant?"  I have to imagine that many people nowadays might think that holding this protagonist up to be a hero(ine) after the choices she makes would be... difficult, at least, even despite the time period. (Compare this, perhaps, to the recent film Hidden Figures, where the heroines did not hide their identity, but fought for their right to exist and work and achieve alongside others just the same.)

But I am in no position to judge. I don't know that I could ever appreciate the soul-sucking calculus that goes into the decision of having to decide to "pass," to deny everything that you are just to get by. Ida Mae's decision is on the surface a pragmatic, utilitarian one, and too quick a read of this book will make it seem like the story is all about her achieving her dream of flying, when that storyline is really a vehicle for the novel's heavier load: complex and overlapping themes of identity and family.

Case in point: The scene where Ida Mae's (darker-skinned) mother shows up at the base, and Ida Mae keeps from blowing her cover by pretending that her mother is the maid may seem like a minor plot point if the reader's main focus is Ida Mae's flight aspirations, but a second read of the book, with the reader's attention focused on the novel's deeper themes, reveals this moment to be one of the most heart-rending in the book.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

The Power of Poppy Pendle, by Natasha Lowe

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Poppy Pendle is different really different. Poppy Pendle is magic. She is a witch who doesn't want to be a witch: She doesn't want to brew potions, or cast spells, or ride a broomstick. Flying on a broomstick makes her sick, in fact. Poppy wants to bake instead. Baking is her passion. It is her life, and she is devoted to it, and absolutely extraordinary at it. She was literally born into it... You see, Poppy was born on the floor of Patisserie Marie Claire, a small French bakery.

But her parents have other ideas. For some reason, in Poppy's world, magic is exclusively female, and runs in certain families. The gift of magic occurs to a girl in Poppy's family only every four generations, so Mr. and Mrs. Pendle are very excited.  They want her to pursue a life of magic. They want her to use her gift.

So, rather than sending her to a regular elementary school, they send her to Ruthersfield Academy, a school for witches like Poppy. But Poppy hates Ruthersfield, where everything revolves around magic. Besides, the inside of the building is hot and stuffy. And the other students tease her like there's no tomorrow because she would rather bake cupcakes than cast spells. 

After three years like this, Poppy can't stand it anymore. She runs away to Patisserie Marie Claire (she doesn't realize that she was born there; her parents never told her). Marie Claire Gentille, the woman who runs the patisserie, lets her in, and Poppy stays there for a week before her parents find her and bring her back home. Now Poppy is angry, and rightly so. The patisserie is the only place she has ever felt truly happy, and it has been taken away from her.

The next day, at Ruthersfield, the girls are taught a very special spell, a spell that, when used with enough emotion, could turn something into a solid stone statue. That night Poppy gets into a serious fight with her parents, and she turns them to stone. And her parents aren't the only things to turn to stone: Animals, fish, and other people get changed too, as well as Poppy's own heart.

This is a good book for younger readers, 8 or 9 and up (even though Poppy curses her parents and turns them to stone, the book does have a happy ending). I read this book for the first time in second or third grade, and I thought it was a lot of fun to read. But I hadn't read it in at least 2 years, until this week. I still liked it, but it definitely seemed a bit more childish than the books I like reading nowadays. So maybe kids over age 10 or 11 might feel the same.

However, I still love one of the best parts of this book: the 12 recipes of Poppy's at the end of the novel! 

Daddy's Afterthoughts: Julia takes a step back from YA titles into a younger read this go-around. This book may be a little much for kids who are just into chapter books, but if your children are already reading longer, substantial YA fare (Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Golden Compass, The Giver, A Wind in the Door, The Outsiders) then they have probably missed their Poppy Pendle window. Perhaps not coincidentally, Poppy herself is only 10. Lovers of the movie Frozen will recognize touches of Elsa in her magical-power-run-amok-and-throwing-a-hissy-fit-and-shutting-herself-away-from-the-world phase. If Hogwarts had an elementary school, and Elsa attended it, and dressed in all black, she might be Poppy Pendle. Actually, that's not a bad way to think of the book. For readers 8, 9, 10, 11, who are not ready for 500+ page fantasy tomes, this book will do the trick. And some of the recipes do look really yummy.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Uglies, by Scott Westerfeld

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Imagine it. You are 15. In two weeks you will be 16. You can hardly wait. Because turning 16 brings a life-changing operation. This operation turns you from an ugly to a pretty. You're probably thinking: "That's ridiculous!" But it's true. In this world, everyone anticipates this operation that makes them gorgeous.

Well, almost everyone. Tally Youngblood is 15. She can hardly wait to have her operation and move from Uglyville to New Pretty Town. From her dorm window in Uglyville she can see the fireworks and hot air balloons of 
New Pretty Town. In addition to the fireworks and hot air balloons, there are also wild parties. Why all the fireworks and hot air balloons and wild parties? Because in New Pretty Town your whole job is to have fun. Pretties do no work, at least until it is time for them to marry and start a family.

Tally lives in a post-apocalyptic world. Before the operation, life was like we know it today. People went to war, we used oil, we cut down trees, there was pollution, etc. And then someone invented a bacterium that, when it came into contact with petroleum and oxygen at the same time, exploded. The explosion sent spores flying in every direction, spreading it. This "oil bug" spread across the world, infecting everything. The human population was devastated. The survivors eventually started rebuilding cities, repairing the damage done before the oil bug, and inventing new things... like the pretty operation. 

Now back to the present. Tally has just snuck in to New Pretty Town and is about to leave when she meets Shay. Shay is a girl Tally's age who hasn't had the operation yet, and she doesn't plan to. Shay tells Tally about a place far away from any of the cities, where people live without the operation. This place is called the Smoke, and those who live in it are called Smokies. Shay plans to leave Uglyville for the Smoke. She plans to stay "ugly," to live a life of hard work. She wants Tally to come with her, but Tally refuses; she thinks it will be better to have the easier life that comes after getting the operation. Shay gives Tally directions to the Smoke, just in case she changes her mind. They exchange good-byes, and Shay leaves.

The day of Tally's operation comes, but when Tally arrives at the hospital, a man walks up and says, "There's been a problem with your operation. Come with me."

This man is a pretty, but unlike any pretty Tally has seen before. Unlike most pretties, who give off a warm, friendly feeling, this pretty emits a cold, hard feeling.

Tally follows the man into the hospital. There she meets Dr. Cable, another "cruel pretty." Dr. Cable talks to Tally about Shay, and how Special Circumstances, the government organization that performs the Pretty operation, has been monitoring her. Dr. Cable then gives Tally a choice: Go to the Smoke and turn Shay in, or never become a pretty. At first she does not want to, but the thought of being "ugly" all her life overwhelms her, and she decides to go. 

Once there, however, she meets two former doctors who used to perform the pretty operation, but ran away and founded the Smoke. They tell Tally the truth about the pretty operation. And Tally is shocked. 

The truth is not always so pretty.

Uglies is a lot like Delirium; click on the link to read my review of that book! At a certain age everyone is required to get an operation to change them into what they believe are better people, into what the society says people should be more like. They are forced to change themselves permanently to fit in. The main characters in both books are okay with the operation at first, because they believe the easier life will make them happier, but both girls end up second-guessing their way of thinking due to the influence of other (wiser) characters. Lena, in Delirium, ends up changing her mind. But will Tally change her mind, even knowing the truth about the pretty operation? Or will she turn her new friend Shay in, so she can become pretty like she has always wanted?

The people in Uglies think that being beautiful solves everything. But, it doesn't. It doesn't matter what you are like on the outside. And why are people who haven't had the operation called "uglies," anyway? Well, it's because...

"In a world of extreme beauty, everyone normal is ugly."

Daddy's Afterthoughts:  I'm a sucker for a good, post-apocalyptic dystopian novel. This, the first book of a trilogy (actually a "trilogy-plus-one"), was recommended to Julia by an English professor friend of mine. She read it as an adult and loved it, and she passed her copy on to Julia. So if that is any indication, this piece of YA fiction is suitable for tweens, teens, and full blown grown-ups. I can't help but feel that the subject matter seemed a bit Cosmo for Teens at first, but the reviews I have read suggest that it is not only a good piece of dystopian YA fiction, but is a satisfying and rave-reviewed book for SF fans of any stripe, old or young. That's pretty high praise. Kirkus rates the book highly, and recommends it for ages 14+, but Julia gobbled the book up at 12.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Running Out of Night, by Sharon Lovejoy

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In the 1800's, a girl lived on a small farm in the southern part of the U.S. This girl had no name, her mother was dead, and her father and brothers treated her cruelly. Her father and brothers just called her "Girl," no name required. 

Then one day, something happens that changes her life. A young girl comes to her farm, alone. This new girl has dark skin, very dark skin. This new girl is a runaway slave; she has run from her master and is probably heading for Canada, where she would be free. Her name is Zenobia, and the nameless girl first meets Zenobia when she comes to the doorstep of the nameless girl's cottage. 

Zenobia actually is a slave, and the nameless girl is treated just like one. Soon, Zenobia and the nameless girl are on the run, because soon, the slave catchers will be after Zenobia, and the nameless girl's father will come looking for her. 

Zenobia decides to give the nameless girl a name. She hears her whistling and thinks that she sounds just like a bird, so she calls her Lark, after the bird. This is very special for Lark. Receiving a name is like being welcomed into the world; for the first time, Lark feels like she has an identity. Lark is breaking the law to help Zenobia, where almost anyone else (like her father) would turn her in for the reward. The two girls quickly become like sisters, family.

They've been running a few days, and they climb a tree and stay there for the night. Lark and Zenobia are hiding in the tree when they hear Lark's father's voice call out:

"Where's the redhead girl? And where's my runaway slave girl?"

High up in the tree they are able to stay undetected, but the fact that Lark's father is looking for them is something to worry about. He had two hounds, who will find them in no time, except they apparently, thankfully, cannot smell up trees.

Later on, they meet Brightwell, another runaway slave. He runs with them, and in their journey they meet new people, both kind and cruel, encounter trouble and tragedy, and become lifelong friends. Lark's and Zenobia's journey on the Underground Railroad shows that there is so much more to a person than the color of their skin. It shows that the worst of times can bring out the best in people. 

Zenobia and Lark stay together throughout their journey. Lark won't let anything separate them, not even the fact that her own father was hunting them down. So while this book is full of tragedy and trouble, there's something else in this story: loyalty to the people you love.                                   


Daddy's afterthoughts:  Julia kind of back-pedaled into it, but yes, this novel is a historical tie-in to the history of the Underground Railroad. This makes it more than just a fictitious lark (no pun intended), but a nice way to introduce the history via an engaging story about two heroic young women, though the history itself (names, places, dates, figures) is low-key and in the background - this does not read like a history textbook! The focus is on the actions and escapades of these two youngsters. The book is narrated in dialect; Lark is the first-person narrator of this book, and the sound of her voice comes though clearly in the altered spellings (-in instead of -ing, for example), word choices, and grammar ("Me and Zenobia set down..."). For some parents, I know this might present a problem, especially for younger readers whose parents might prefer exemplars of more polished "standard" English. But give it a try! Dialogue too is infused with the local color of the time and place, and parents will perhaps be happy to hear that the dreaded and hated "n-word" is not used anywhere in the book - not something you get with Huck Finn and the like. Perfect for grades 4 through 8.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

The Outsiders, by S.E. Hinton

Image result for the outsiders book

This story takes place around the 1960's, when switchblades were legal, kids smoked when they were nine or ten, and Mustang cars and drive-in theaters were popular.

Ponyboy Curtis is a greaser. Greasers get their name from the grease they use to slick their hair back. They're poorer than middle class, smoke a lot, get into trouble from time to time, and get into fights with the Socs.

Socs are the rich, upper-class kids. They drink beer, throw wild parties, and drive fancy cars like Mustangs (yes, back then a Mustang was a fancy car). But for some Socs, a favorite activity was to jump greasers. When I say "jump," I don't mean playing leapfrog. I mean four or five kids pile into a car, find someone else from the other side of town, and beat them up. 

Ponyboy, a 14-year-old boy, is walking home from a drive-in theater when he gets jumped. The Socs who jump him only run away when they hear Ponyboy's brothers come running. Ponyboy has two brothers: Sodapop and Darry. Sodapop is 16-going-on-17 and has a great sense of humor. He dropped out of high school to get a job. Darry is around 17 or 18 and works roofing houses, so he has big muscles and is really athletic. Life is tough at home for Ponyboy; he constantly gets into fights with Darry, when Darry is home. Darry and Sodapop both work full-time jobs to support the family.

One evening, Ponyboy and his friend Johnny go to a movie at one of those drive-in theaters, and end up sitting next to two Soc girls, Cherry and Marcia. When the movie ends, Ponyboy and Johnny offer to walk the girls home. While they are walking, a blue Mustang pulls up beside them, and two Soc guys get out. These two guys just happen to be Cherry and Marcia’s boyfriends, and these guys are mad at the two greasers for "picking up" their girls.

Cherry and Marcia decide to head home with their boyfriends before a fight breaks out, leaving Ponyboy and Johnny standing there. They walk back to the lot of the drive-in, lie down in the grass, and chat for a bit. They fall asleep. When they wake up, it is two in the morning, and when Ponyboy gets home, he gets into a fight with Darry over his being out so late. Darry hits him in anger, which no one in Ponyboy's family has ever done. Ponyboy runs away, finds his friend Johnny, and together they run to the park. There, they get jumped by the same Socs who came up next to them in the lot of the drive-in.

The Socs try to drown Ponyboy in the park fountain, but when Johnny stabs one Soc with a switchblade, the rest of them go running. Johnny has killed someone, and that "someone" turns out to be Cherry's boyfriend.

The boys they run for it. Soon the cops will be after them.

The Outsiders is "a heroic story of friendship and belonging," and a true classic. (And the author was 15-16 when she wrote it!) Ponyboy lives in a world where society defines you as a good or bad person according to things like how much money you have, what type of car you drive, if you even have a car, etc. Society expects everyone to be like a Soc, rich and sophisticated. If you aren't, then you are branded a greaser, and everyone shuns you. And simply because Ponyboy is a greaser, society sees him as a criminal, though he's not. He's an intelligent young man who is kind to others. But in his world, money and cars are valued over kindness, intelligence, and love.  

This book gives us a strong example of how other people's views affect you, and everyone around you. The Socs jump Ponyboy and Johnny because they are greasers, but there are moments in the story when some of the Greasers and some of the Socs try to talk and get to know each other a bit, understand each other. 

Still, that happens too late to save more than one life…


Daddy's afterthoughts:  So, originally the idea was not to have Julia do so-called "classics," books that everybody has read (recent mega-sellers like Harry Potter or Hunger Games, and/or acknowledged classics like Charlotte's Web, The Hobbit, or the Narnia books) or has to read (Of Mice and Men, Huck Finn...). And in fact, I suspect, many American kids will have to read this book in grades 7, 8, or 9. However, in the case of The Outsiders, a true modern classic, I think the two things that tipped the scales for me were as follows:

a.) The book is loaded with wonderful anachronisms that are far more alien to today's 10-15 year-olds than they were to the same age group in my day. Talk of switchblades and rumbles and Ford Mustangs and drive-in movie theaters evoke for me a quaint Grease-like atmosphere. But I wonder if for kids today, this might be little different than reading Shakespeare - words and phrases and places and references for which they have little context. In that sense, The Outsiders is a period piece, unique in that it takes place in a period about which the parents of the child reader can actually say, "Yeah, I remember that. I was there, let me tell you about it." 

b.) The book has been frequently banned or challenged in school districts all over the country. No, really. It is apparently in the banned books all-time top-50. Insane, IMO. Still, if you decide that your child isn't ready for The Outsiders, I can strongly recommend Trino's Choice, by Diana Gonzales Bertrand. It has a similar storyline and theme(s), and features a 7th-grade protagonist that many kids will associate with. Slightly shorter, and targeting a younger audience, the book is equally as literary, and significantly less violent, while focusing a little more on positive role models (a chief criticism of The Outsiders).


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