Friday, August 17, 2018

The Frame-Up, by Wendy McLeod MacKnight

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Mona has lived in the painting Mona Dunn (her portrait) in the Beaverbrook Art Gallery for almost a century. Ever since she was moved to the gallery, she has obeyed the number one rule: No one is allowed to know the paintings are alive.  

All of the gallery's "residents" obey that rule, among other rules, and live peacefully. They can move around through the different paintings as easily as you or I can go to different rooms in a house. They attend meetings. They hang out with each other and socialize. They laugh; they play. They generally live like you or I do, but they can never leave the paintings.

And they never age.

A restless 13-year-old girl, Mona loves to explore the gallery. She enjoys talking to the friends she has made in other paintings, and admiring the scenery of some of the landscapes.

Sargent Singer is the 12-year-old son of the gallery director. He's a talented painter and is visiting his father for the summer. His parents are divorced, and he hasn't seen his father for a while. One day, Sargent is looking around the gallery when he catches sight of Mona's portrait. He thinks he sees her sticking out her tongue at some rude children in the museum. But... that's impossible. He tries to convince himself that he is only hallucinating. 

The museum closes for the day, but as the gallery director's son, he has the freedom to move around after hours. He returns to Mona's painting, and he notices that it is empty! He glances around at the other paintings, and out of the corner of his eye, he sees a shape in the painting San Vigilio, Lake Garda that shouldn't be there. 

Peering closer, he realizes that the shape is Mona Dunn. 

Mona is horrified, believing that the biggest and most important secret of the Beaverbrook Gallery has been exposed. But he and Mona become friends, as they are forced to team up to solve mysteries about what is really going on at the gallery. 

How can such a friendship survive, when he is real and she is just... paint?

The Frame-Up is perfect for fans of the movie Night at the Museum, and, like in Harry Potter, the paintings come to life. (This novel actually makes references to both movies.) And there is a scene involving movie night at the museum's summer art camp that will make you giggle. There are also some similarities to a wonderful book I reviewed recently about a girl trapped in a painting on the side of a china platter, Joplin, Wishing by Diane Stanley. (Click the link to read my review!)

The blurb on the cover says "Look beyond what you think you see." And that's always what you must do.

Daddy's afterthoughts: This book takes the Toy Story trope and has some fun with it. (I know, Toy Story wasn't first, but it's the one most kids will register with. For a nice internet rabbit hole to fall down reading about this stuff, try this.) The copy of the book Julia had (a pre-publication draft) only has black-and-white reproductions of the artworks, all of which are real, but I have read that published versions of the book contain full-color plates. For young readers who are art lovers or who fancy themselves painters, the book dips its feet in that world nicely. In fact, it reminds me personally of my favorite board game growing up in the 70s as a child, Masterpiece, where the goal is to buy and sell classic paintings at auction for a profit. (Follow the link for a short video explaining the game - it is a great way to introduce kids to great art, though the game is out of print now.)

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Nothing, by Annie Barrows

Image result for nothing by annie barrows

Charlotte and Frankie are two girls who believe that absolutely NOTHING happens in their lives. So Charlotte decides to write a story that records everything that happens during their sophomore year of high school to prove that their lives are full of nothing. She writes about her friends, her crushes, other people's girlfriends and boyfriends. She writes about her looks, her best friend's looks, parties she goes to, and a bunch of other things that fifteen-year-old girls tend to do (shopping and stuff like that). 

And then she realizes something.

She realizes that real life isn’t fiction. Real life isn’t a book or TV show. Charlotte and Frankie want a lot of drama in their lives, and that just doesn’t always happen.

Nothing is not for young readers. Nothing has more than a few swear words on every page, and Charlotte and Frankie talk about sex. They also do drugs (they smoke weed) and drink. Now, don't get me wrong. I liked the book. It made me laugh a lot, mostly at the unpredictable behaviors of teenagers. But it’s not a kids’ book.

Even a book about "nothing" must have a purpose. This one teaches that real life isn't a fantasy world like you'd see on TV, or read in a book. The problem is, many people think that it is. Charlotte and Frankie do, but they start to realize that, possibly, their lives were already “maybe, just perfect.”

Just remember that your life isn't nothing. Life is full of activity and excitement; you may just need to write it down to see it!

Daddy’s afterthoughts: I can't possibly add thoughts any better than the author herself. The advance reader's copy Julia got her hands on had this gem tucked inside. It pretty much says it all. Enjoy!

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Stargirl, by Jerry Spinelli

      "Did you see her?"
      That was the first thing Kevin said to me on the first day of school, eleventh grade. We were waiting for the bell to ring.
      "See who?" I said.
      "Hah!" He craned his neck, scanning the mob. He had witnessed something remarkable; it showed on his face. He grinned, still scanning. "You'll know" (p. 3).

He's talking about the new girl.

The new girl at Mica High is different. There's no other way to describe her. That's what Leo thinks. At first. 

She brings a pet rat to school, she wears weird things like kimonos and Indian buckskins, she brings a ukulele to school and sings "Happy Birthday" to people. She wears no makeup. And she calls herself "Stargirl." The students have never seen anyone like her before. Everyone loves her. She's not one of the beautiful ones, but still she becomes the most popular and beloved student at Mica High.

And Leo finds himself in love. Not in love with the beautiful girl, or the smart girl, or the artist, or the actress. He loves Stargirl, not for her popularity but for her difference -- for who she is on the inside.

Then she's turned on. Shunned. Hated for her differences. Like a new toy that first you love because it's fun and new, but then quickly get bored of, then ignore, then start to despise, the kids at the school start giving her the silent treatment. One of the "popular" girls threatens to drop her pet rat down the stairwell. But she doesn't let them get to her; she sill not let them make her feel bad.

Leo, however, does feel bad. He is worried for her. He is also worried for himself -- what will others think of him for hanging out with her? (Classic teenage boy behavior, right?) He begs her to be "normal," to become like all the other girls. Blend in more; act like everyone else. For a little while, she does.

Then, Stargirl disappears.

This isn't the end. Will she return? And if so, in what form? Will she stay the way she has always been? Or will she stay "normal?"

Stargirl celebrates the individuality of each and every person, all the while showing what happens when one person wants to be different, while the others want conformity. Stargirl would be a great read for 9+, for any kids -- especially girls -- who feel that pressure and don't know how to respond to it. 

Stargirl among the Mica High students is like a flower among the grass, or a cactus in the barren desert. Stargirl is the flower, she doesn't let the others steal her beauty. Not for long, anyway.

Everyone talks about being normal, but when everyone is an individual, normal isn't a thing.

Jerry Spinelli also wrote Wringer, which you can check out in my very first book review post, from over a year ago!

Daddy’s afterthoughts:  I don’t want to spoil the ending, but if you are familiar with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark,” there are some parallels to the character of Georgianna. The arguably mad scientist Aylmer tries to use his alchemical wizardry to make his already remarkable wife Georgianna “perfect,” not realizing that when he succeeds, she becomes too good, too angel-like, to continue to exist on earth with the rest of us imperfect mortal fools, and so she is forced to depart. Perhaps, too, Steven King’s The Green Mile, in the character of John Coffey, who despite being misunderstood and even hated, gives his goodness to the world to the last, right up until he is executed for a crime he did not commit (whoops, spoilers). Even touches, perhaps, of Mary Poppins (the movie version of her, anyway), who comes, works her magic, and then, sensing the change in the winds, realizes it is time for her to go.

Stargirl is a mysterious, inexplicable character who comes, and then goes, and leaves a legacy of memories. But is it just a legacy of memories? Or a legacy of memories and the accompanying lessons that leave the world a better place than when she first comes to town? Does her presence have a net positive impact on the community? And after she goes, does she stay away forever? This book is a glorious YA parable, and I would recommend it even for adults.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

The Truth about Martians, by Melissa Savage

Note: This book will be on sale starting October 2, 2018.

Mylo hasn't ever thought Martians existed. His best friend Dibs is a Mars fanatic, though. He's constantly telling Mylo that Martians are real, and Mylo doesn't believe him… until something crash-lands near his home in Roswell, New Mexico, during a storm. Shortly after, Mylo begins to hear voices in his head, begging for help.

Most people believe it is just a weather balloon; at least, this is what the news reports are telling people. So people don’t really bother investigating that hard. However, Mylo and Dibs are sure it's a Martian spaceship, and they're proved right when they investigate the crash. They feel electricity in the air. They see a huge burned-out area. They find pieces of what looks like it came from a ship of some kind. Then, they see the ship itself!

The boys come back later, this time with Mylo's crush Gracie. This time, Mylo climbs inside the ship, and that's when he sees it: the Martian. And it's alive. Dibs and Gracie are freaked out, and they drag Mylo off the ship. They become even more freaked out when the Air Force shows up and takes the ship, with the alien still on board. The three kids, hiding, witness the whole thing.

Mylo suddenly realizes that he must have accidentally dropped something on the ship as his friends were dragging him out. Something very special to him. Something that he has kept to remind him of his recently deceased older brother – a small teddy bear, small enough for Mylo to keep in the front pocket of his overalls. When he realizes that the memento is gone, he leaps on his horse (it’s 1947, and they are in New Mexico), and rides away, streaming tears. He rides to his brother’s grave to apologize to his brother.

But while he is at his brother’s grave, he realizes that someone… something… has followed him to the graveyard. And brought him back his bear.

What follows is an exciting quest to return the kidnapped Martian to its home while dodging the Air Force, keeping some very deep secrets, dealing with painful memories of a lost loved one, and learning more about the universe and himself than Mylo ever thought possible.

The Truth about Martians isn't just a sci-fi story about aliens. It's also about the determination of friends and family that drives them to help each other. And of finding new friends in the most unexpected places.

Personally, I thought the book was amazing. There were parts where I laughed, and parts where I almost cried. There were parts where a character made me cringe, and parts that left me shocked. And I'll recommend it for boys or girls, ages 8+. It is about 300 pages long, but it didn't feel that long. So, go buy it... when it comes out. 

The Truth about Martians isn't going to be on sale until Oct. 2, 2018. I got my hands on an advance reader's copy, and now I am sharing my thoughts with you! You can find out more about the author, Melissa Savage, by visiting her website here. Or follow her on Twitter at @melissadsavage.

Daddy's afterthoughts: I really liked this book too. The story is cute, and could/should probably make a pretty decent movie if someone ever buys the rights. (Yes, the story has shades of E.T. and Earth to Echo, and even Short Circuit in it, but that is not a bad thing.) What I really loved about the book was Savage's dogged determination to place the action squarely in 1947. She accomplishes this by following in the footsteps of Junot Díaz's The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and more recently, Ernest Cline's Ready Player One, and liberally peppering her prose with 1940s-era pop-culture references: Superman (the rooster that crows to wake Mylo up is named "Jor-El McRoostershire the Third"), the New York YankeesThe Wizard of Oz, and a variety of references to various candy and food items that would have been popular at the time. 

These anachronisms might make the reading a little bit challenging for younger children who don't have ready references for these things in their experience, but it's no different than trying to navigate other period-piece YA titles like The Outsiders (which Julia reviewed, and I commented on, here). For me, it made the reading really interesting. (By the way, if you are, like me, 40 or older, the ultimate experience, IMO, in this kind of period pop-culture reading is Eudora Welty's wonderful homage to the general stores of her youth, a short essay called, what else, "The Corner Store.")

A note to religious parents: The young protagonist, Mylo, initially has a somewhat fractious relationship with that entity most simply refer to as "God." He speaks honestly and openly, as any kid who just lost his older brother might. There is nothing scandalous or blasphemous (not that I personally would mind), just a child working out his feelings the best he can. Every generation has its YA titles that deal with these themes; for me growing up in the 70s and early 80s, it was Are You There God, It's Me, Margaret by Judy Blume. (This book should not register anywhere near that level of controversy!) And for what it's worth, Mylo's attitude does not stay that way throughout the whole book. I think parents who are worried about such things, if they choose to read the whole book, will find themselves both pleased and relieved at the course of Mylo's "spiritual" journey.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Joplin, Wishing, by Diane Stanley

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When 11-year-old Joplin's grandfather dies, her mom says that Joplin can keep anything of her grandfather's that she wants. Joplin selects a red cookie jar that contains no cookies, just pieces of a broken china platter. Joplin's mother's friend Jen (though Joplin calls her "Aunt Jen") has the platter restored to what it was, a scene of a landscape and a young girl, around Joplin's age, standing next to a pond.

Joplin has no friends and, feeling lonely, wishes that the girl in the platter could be her friend. The very next morning, the girl is sitting in the garden behind the apartment. The girl introduces herself as Sofie. Sofie explains that she is cursed, and she tells Joplin her story. 

400 years ago, Sofie had lived in a little Dutch village with her mother, father, two brothers, and a sister. Often, her mother would send her to the market to buy and sell basic necessities like food and cloth. On the way, Sofie would pass a large house that belonged to a potter called Hans van der Brock. He would often be standing outside, watching everyone who went by, looking for ideas to paint on china that he made. One day he asked Sofie to pose for him. After that, she would pose for him practically every week. One day, he had her stand in a very specific pose, and, rather than drawing her picture with charcoal, he painted her picture on a china platter. He then sprinkled three different powders on it, one yellow, one white, one blue. Then, suddenly, she was not standing where she had been. Instead, she was looking up at his face. She had become part of a picture on a platter. In addition, she now had to grant every wish the owner of the platter made. 

Hans wished for immortality, which meant that right now he is out there, somewhere.

Sofie just wanted to go back home, and Joplin promised to help set her free. But Sofie said it would be impossible, as the only one with the power to free her was the one who enslaved her, 400 years ago...

I'm just going to say this right now: I loved this story. It has great characters, a cool plot, a few neat twists, and it's suitable for people aged 9+. If you ask me, Joplin, Wishing is a lot like Aladdin; Sofie is like a genie, Joplin is her Aladdin, Sofie is trapped, and Joplin temporarily releases her, so now Sofie has to grant Joplin's wishes, though Joplin is kind and doesn't simply use Sofie for that purpose. Joplin is determined to help Sofie under any circumstances, good or bad. 

Joplin, Wishing is about how true friendship can really (literally!) be magical. The front of the book asks "Can one last wish set her free?" Maybe it can.

Daddy's afterthoughts: This story is a spectacular twist on the Becoming the Genie trope. Unlike Disney's Aladdin (which young people are, for better or worse, much more likely to be familiar with than its source material, One Thousand and One Nights), this story does not have - nor does it need - the barely-contained chaos of Robin Williams' genie. This novel does not go for slapstick. It also has aspects of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (young girl stays at the house of an eccentric older relative, young girl finds a fascinating object, and magical adventures ensue) and the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea (lonely character crafts a sculpture, realizes how lonely he is in real life, prays for a companion, and the goddess Aphrodite brings his statue to life). Diane Stanley's 2017 story weaves these familiar elements together in a novel that will appeal to young readers (Kirkus suggests 8-12, but I might go as high as 14, or even higher, as it is a lovely story).

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Positively Izzy, by Terri Libenson

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Brianna (Bri) is a brain, a little Einstein. She likes that she gets good grades, but wants people to know her for who she is on the inside, rather than judging her for pen markings on papers. She doesn't want to have a label stuck on her. 

Izzy is a dreamer, a pure artist. She likes to write stories and loves to act, enjoying the way she change herself, just throw away her identity and take up someone else's. But she isn't exactly an "A" student.

Bri is dreading the school Talent Show. Her mother, the drama teacher, has always been pressuring her to try acting as an activity, but Bri hates to act. Then, on the day of the show, Bri's mom comes up to her and says, "One of the talent show entries is a group of 7th graders doing short, interrelated scenes from a play. There's a two -person scene... and an actor got sick." Bri knows what she is going to say next. "They need a last-minute replacement."

Izzy, on the other hand, can't wait for the school Talent Show. She's been practicing her act for days, and she knows she's ready! But one day, at school, she forgets to do a "mandatory" assignment for math, earning a zero, again. She plans to hide that fact from her mom, but her mom discovers the assignment lying on a table, and punishes Izzy for the zero by telling her she can't go to the Talent Show. 

Brianna and Izzy don't exactly know each other at the moment, but soon, their lives will meet in a rather unexpected way...

I can personally relate with Izzy in one or two ways. I do forget assignments and try to hide that fact from my parents, but they eventually find out and punish me for it. And I can't always focus in class. I can relate with Bri in that I do get good grades (straight-A 7th grader, thank you very much!), I don't like acting, and I have parents who pressure me to do things that are out of my comfort zone.

You see, Bri and Izzy are just your two average 7th grade girls. They don't have superpowers, they aren't especially popular, and they enjoy simply to be with their friends and family. But this story of two average girls and their average lives is both surprising (wait until you read the ending!) and likely to put a smile on your face.

Positively Izzy is a graphic novel for ages 9-12. If you are a fan of Raina Telgemeier's SmileSistersDrama, and Ghosts; the well-known Babysitter's Club series; or Sunny Side Up and Swing It, Sunny by Matthew and Jennifer L. Holm, then here is my 100% guarantee that you will like this book.

So read on, and remember, be positive!

Daddy's afterthoughts:  

"I do forget assignments and try to hide that fact from my parents..."

Say what, now?

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

Image result for princess x book cover

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.


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If you are looking for books in the age range of 9-16 (grades 4-10), then maybe I can help you decide which book to read! If you are a stude...