Thursday, March 15, 2018

Flygirl, by Sherri L. Smith

Image result for flygirl

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

Image result for The Power of Poppy Pendle

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

Image result for Uglies

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

Image result for running out of night

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).

Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Unwanteds, by Lisa McMann

Alex and Aaron Stowe are twin brothers living in the dry, desolate land of Quill, a country ruled by the High Priest Justine, a tyrant who rules her country like “a puppet show – everyone doing as she, the puppet master, demands.”

Once a year, every person in Quill gathers for the Purge, where every 13-year-old is sorted into one of three categories: Wanted, Necessary, or Unwanted. The Wanteds go to the university, the Necessaries get the hard jobs like farming, army work, or burying dead bodies, and the Unwanteds are “eliminated.” In other words, they are killed.

Or at least that's what everyone thinks.

The Unwanteds are those who are creative. In Quill, everyone sees creativity as a weakness. Anyone caught being creative has committed an “infraction,” and on the day of the annual Purge, will be eliminated. Alex has several infractions.

Alex and the rest of the Unwanteds believe that they will die, from the moment that their names are announced as Unwanteds to the moment that they walk through the gates of the “Death Farm.” However, as they enter the Farm, they meet a magician named Marcus Today, and he tells them that the Unwanteds do not die; they are “saved.”

When the Unwanteds walk through those gates, they enter the world of Artimé, a world where creativity is embraced rather than shunned. Where people are taught to flaunt their creative skills, and where people are taught to use art not only as a hobby, but also as a weapon. You see, Artimé is not just a creative world, but a world of magic.

As well as learning to draw and paint better, Alex learns how to paint himself invisible, use scatterclips, and draw 3-D doors and windows in such a way that he can open and pass through them like normal doors or windows.

Aaron Stowe, Alex's brother, is a Wanted, and Alex misses him terribly. But since Aaron is a Wanted, he believes Alex to be dead and has likely forgotten all about him, like he was instructed to do. But just how far will Alex go to reach his brother? And what are the consequences?

Kirkus Reviews described the story as “The Hunger Games meets Harry Potter,” which for the most part is true. Alex gets shipped off to some place where he goes to a school and learns magic (Harry Potter), and comes from a place with a seriously corrupt government (Hunger Games). This book shows the bond between siblings, and how important it is that that bond stays intact.

Here's a message that I got out of this story: Never hide your talent. Flaunt it and be proud.


Daddy's afterthoughts
Kirkus inadvertently indicts it as yet another trope-fest of recycled elements from better-known stories, though in this case, I cannot complain too much; the series is a good developmental stepping stone for heavier fantasy fare for developing young readers. This fun (well, as fun as a dystopian fantasy can be, anyway) series by Lisa McMann is seven books long, and each book is around the 400-500 page range. Where this differs from other works of that length in the fantasy genre is that, at least in the paperback edition that Julia has, the text is slightly larger and spaced in such a way that it is the equivalent of another book a good third shorter; in other words, this first book in the series, at 390 pages, reads like a 250-300 page book (by comparison, say, the first Potter book). This makes for a great opportunity for avid fantasy readers in the age 8-12 range whose reading stamina might not be quite up for 500-800 page books to bask in the genre without getting lost in the text; with Lexile scores hovering around 800, readers of most ability levels will be able to enjoy a set of characters and stories that spans over 3,000 pages. And older readers can enjoy the rich storylines despite the (relatively) easy reading level.

Another plus, the books (as of this writing anyway) seem to be about half the cost of normal YA fiction. As of December 2017, I see them for $4.99 each in paperback new on Amazon, and the complete hardcover box set, all seven volumes, is only $70 (ten dollars a volume for hardcover is pretty remarkable).

Also, in her online bio, author McMann specifically remarks that she likes bacon, so, you know, #winning.

Monday, December 11, 2017

The School for Good and Evil, by Soman Chainani

Image result for the school for good and evil

Two girls, Sophie and Agatha, have been friends all their life, but no two friends could be more different. They were practically exact opposites. For example, Sophie likes pink, while Agatha likes black. Sophie does a two-hour grooming routine each morning, but Agatha couldn't care less. 

Sophie believes in the fabled School for Good and Evil; Agatha thinks it's a myth.

Sophie and Agatha live in Gavaldon, a small village surrounded by woods, and every four years, something comes out of those woods, takes two children, and runs off. It started 200 years ago, and in those 200 years, the villagers have noticed a pattern. One of the two children is always good-natured and good-looking, while the other is selfish and ugly. In other words, one was Good, the other Evil.  
Later on, those same children (the ones who were taken) appear in fairy tales, as heroes and villains.

Of course, Sophie and Agatha up at The School for Good and Evil. So Sophie goes to Good and Agatha goes to Evil, and everything is fine, right? Wrong! Sophie goes to Evil and Agatha to Good! They think that there must've been a mix up and Agatha wants to go home but...

"The only way out of a fairy tale... is to live through it." 

After the little mix-up, Sophie finds out that while she always thought she had been good, there is a darkness in her soul that, as the story progresses, grows and takes control as she tries harder and harder to convince people that she is in fact Good; she feels betrayed, angry, and upset that she has been placed in the “wrong” school, and the angrier she gets, the more the anger changes her. Agatha may have appeared to hate everyone, but she hasn’t really given herself the chance to see the Good in herself. Maybe they are in the right schools after all?

Both of them have always seen themselves as what was on the surface, so when they find out who they really might be, it surprises them. Being in the “wrong” school helps them see themselves for how they truly are, not how they think they are, which is hard for most to do. But solving any problem has its price. Sophie’s and Agatha’s friendship is in danger. Sometimes, Agatha thinks that their friendship never even existed.

Intriguing, isn't it? And just because this book has something to do with fairy tales doesn't mean that this book is for 5-year-old girls. I mean, this book is close to 500 pages long. There is some violence, so this book wouldn’t be recommended for kids who easily get nightmares. At one point, the students from both schools clash and almost start a war. But this book has a little bit of everything: friendship, trust, a little bit of love, but also a bit of fear, sadness, betrayal, and of course, fighting. Mix it all up, let it simmer in a Crock-Pot, and you have this book: The School for Good and Evil, where fairy tales come to life.


Daddy's afterthoughts:   I don't have much to add. Yet another fairy tale/magical school/alternate world trope-fest, although like Adam Gidwitz's Grimm series that Julia reviewed book one of some time ago, this one flirts with the dark side a bit. I would, however, direct parents to this NPR article, with its interesting insights into the book's young author and his vision for the series, now several books long. The article itself is specifically focused on the fourth book ( I think) in the series, but the overview is general, and will give you a good sense of what is going on in the series as a whole. As far as trope-filled it's-been-done-before series goes, this one looks like a good 'un.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

The War that Saved My Life, by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Image result for the war that saved my life

Ada has never left her apartment in London all her life. Her mother is so ashamed of Ada's crippled right foot that she won't even let her go outside. Not that Ada can go anywhere, her foot makes it too painful to walk or even put weight on it. Ada spends her days in the little one room apartment just sitting around. Messing up or talking back, or even daring to leave, results in a beating, being slapped, or spending the night in the cabinet, a filthy cupboard inhabited by roaches.
A war is going on, World War II to be exact. Ada's mom is going to send Ada's younger brother Jamie away from the war to protect him, and leave Ada in the apartment, but Ada sneaks away with Jamie.
Ada and Jamie go with all the other children who are being evacuated. People from the country take the children into their homes and provide them with food and shelter. Ada and Jamie go with a Miss Susan Smith, which is funny because Ada's last name is Smith to begin with. Miss Smith immediately notices Ada limping when she walks (Ada taught herself to walk, she mostly crawled around before) and takes her to see a doctor. Turns out, Ada's foot is crippled from a condition called clubfoot, which is common and can be surgically fixed. One big problem: they have to get Ada's mother's permission. Miss Smith sends letters, which receive no reply. So either Ada's mom can't read, or she isn't bothering to read the letters.
Ada is left with a whirlwind of thoughts. She is constantly thinking about the war, her "new" life, and the family she left back home in London. The only thing that seems to calm them is when she lets her mind wander, or when she is out riding Butter, Miss Smith's pony. When Ada isn't thinking, her head is clear, but when she tries to think, she just gets confused.
Ada doesn't want to get "used to" Miss Smith, nor does she want to go home. Miss Smith won’t beat or slap Ada and Jamie, even when they might deserve it. With Miss Smith, she feels more free. But she knows she can't have it both ways.
This story is yet another WWII story about a young girl caught in a difficult situation, but unlike my other reviews (Making Bombs for Hitler and The Devil's Arithmetic), there are no scenes with Nazis in this book. Ada hears about the bombs and the news of the war only on the radio. Instead, this book focuses on Ada's conflict: Ada doesn’t know where she belongs. Is it her mother's London apartment, or Miss Smith’s country home?
The blurb on the cover says "Finding where you belong is always worth the fight." Well, maybe Ada has found where she belongs, all she needs to do is just know it.


Daddy's afterthoughts: This 2015 release is a 2016 Newberry Honor book. It is a book that is set during the war, but it is really not a "war" book, in the historical fiction sense of some of Julia's other reviewed books. It might be more accurate to say that the war outside is just a metaphor for the war in her family, or the war in her heart over her sense of loyalty between one Smith (her mother) and the other Smith (her caretaker). There is some war detail in the book; Ada narrates historical events as they happen, in parallel with her own story. The distance the book puts Ada at from the actual battlefront makes her more of a spectator, a reporter, and allows her to keep at least some of her innocence. She is worried, but she is not in the thick of it.

There is something very Pete's Dragon or Harry Potter about the arc of this story - going from a household where there was little love, to an ad hoc adoptive family who is able to make a connection and possibly, as the title suggests, "save a life." Commonsense Media gives it very high marks for Educational Value, Positive Role Models, and Positive Messages, and while it rates mid-high in the Violence category, this book is potentially far less intense for most readers than a lot of YA WWII fiction with a Holocaust theme.
This book does have a sequel, The War I Finally Won.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

The Devil's Arithmetic, by Jane Yolen

Hannah is completely sick of family gatherings and reunions. The only things that her family talks about are the past, the past, and the past. It already happened, so why talk about it?

Hannah and her family are Jewish, and her family is celebrating the Passover Seder when Hannah is asked to open the door for the Prophet Elijah. Hannah opens the door that should lead to the hallway outside the apartment they were celebrating in, but instead of a hallway there is a grassy green field, and when Hannah turns around the fancy feast is gone. Her family has disappeared too. In their place stands a small polished table with few things on it. Opening the door has transported Hannah to a new place. Where is she? And when?

A woman's voice behind her says "Well? Is he coming?" Hannah turns around, confused, until the voice asks "So, Chaya, is Shmuel coming or not?" Chaya is Hannah's Hebrew name. 

Hannah is surely dreaming, she thinks. It must be the wine, Hannah thinks. It's giving me daydreams. Or possibly her family is playing some trick or prank on her. She decides to play along: "Whether it was a dream or an elaborate game, she'd show them all that she's a good sport" (24).

Hannah meets many different people: Gitl, the woman who spoke to her; Shmuel, Gitl's younger brother who is getting married the next day; Fayge, Shmuel's wife-to-be; Yitzchak, a butcher; Yitzchak's two kids, Reuven and Tzipporah; and four girls that are her age, Rachel, Shifre, Esther, and Yente. Hannah quickly becomes friends with these girls. They all call her Chaya.
Chaya Abramowicz. But Hannah's last name is Stern..

Then Hannah sees herself in a mirror:

"Gone were her braces. Gone was the light coral lipstick her mother had allowed her to wear to the Seder. The girl who stared back had the same heart-shaped face, the same slightly crooked smile, the same brown hair, the same gray eyes as Hannah Stern of New Rochelle, New York, in America. But there was something old-fashioned and unfamiliar about this Chaya Abramowicz, something haunting..." (44).

The wedding procession for Shmuel and Fayge is full of lots of music, singing, and dancing, but as they arrive at the synagogue, they see that there are military trucks parked in front of it. These trucks belonged to Nazis. Now Hannah finally realizes what is going on. She had been transported back to 1942, in the middle of the Holocaust, and she is a Jew. Someone else, but still a Jew.

Like Making Bombs For Hitler (click to read my blog post on that book), The Devil's Arithmetic is about a young girl (in this case thirteen) who is pulled into the horrors of World War II. But unlike Making Bombs For Hitler, this book is even less gentle with explaining everything. Making Bombs For Hitler might be fine for some younger readers, but this book would probably send those same little kids running and screaming. Don't get me wrong, this is a great book, it's just not for little ones.

The Devil's Arithmetic is shorter than 200 pages, yet in that small space it explains about what life was like for many Jews during WWII. The concentration camps, the gas chambers, the ovens. The brutal Nazi guards. This is especially hard for Hannah, who meets an elderly family member (in Hannah's time) as a young girl (in Chaya's time) in the camps, and has to make a difficult choice. I'd say this book is almost more like historical fiction/horror than just historical fiction. If you are a parent, please read this before giving it to your kids. And be happy that opening a door won't transport you to the middle of a war. 


Daddy's Afterthoughts: I am delighted that Julia is starting to read multiple books on the same theme. This book couples well with Making Bombs for Hitler, as she already mentioned, in terms of their historical time period/milieu, etc... But it also uses the "young person who is transported to another time/place to learn an important lesson" trope that defined her recent reviews of The Lost Track of Time and The Phantom Tollbooth. As a former secondary school English teacher (I taught grades 7 and 9-11 for fifteen or so years, before switching to college teaching), I was always keen to get my students to recognize connections between texts, or between texts and life, or both. I'm glad that she is doing this on her own. One of the advantages of reading a lot is that students get to experience this, instead of simply being told by a teacher in a class somewhere that the connections exist out there. So that's my lecture for the day.

This book is an emotional read. (There is a twist at the end of the novel - I won't give it away, but since Julia did not really tease it, I will - that is the payoff for the whole book, and it will bring tears to the eyes of any sympathetic reader, as well as a stunned "Wow.") Other than the high drama/tragedy factor, there are a lot of Hebrew and/or Yiddish terms and names that pepper the text that non-Jewish readers will not be familiar with, nor perhaps even be able to pronounce. Other authors in similar situations have been kind enough to provide glossaries of unfamiliar or novel terms, or at least pronunciation guides (see Burgess's A Clockwork Orange - a book that is definitely NOT NOT NOT for kids - or Frank Herbert's Dune for examples). Jane Yolen did not, at least in the version we read. So there may be a bit of a learning curve. But that's okay. A lot of learning can come from this book.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster

Image result for the phantom tollbooth

Nothing interests Milo. Milo has a ton of toys and books in his room. Milo's parents are not really mentioned in the book, but they sure do seem to buy him a lot of things. But Milo is always wanting more. However, when he gets it, he very quickly doesn't want it anymore. Milo is never satisfied. 

Then one day, a huge package appears in his room. Who left it? Milo opens the package, and inside it, there is some kind of D.I.Y. building kit. Milo decides to build it because, he figures, there are no other things worth doing. (Well, actually there are, but he doesn't want to do any of them.) 

He finishes building the mystery item, and it turns out to be some kind of large... tollbooth. Milo drives through in his toy electric automobile, because he has nothing better to do. On the other side there is a strange new land, with places such as Digitopolis (the city of numbers), Dictionopolis (the city of words), the "Island of Conclusions" (you get there by jumping), and many more. 

Milo meets a watchdog named Tock, the Humbug (a very unpleasant bug who always is saying the wrong thing at the wrong time), and people like the Mathematician (ruler of Digitopolis) and Azaz the Unabridged (king of Dictionopolis). Not to mention going to other places such as the Mountains of Ignorance and the Valley of Sound (which at the moment is completely silent). 

During this adventure Milo also must rescue the two princesses Rhyme and Reason, for they have been banished to the Castle in the Air, located in the Mountains of Ignorance, which is swarming with demons. It is in Dictionopolis where Milo first hears about Rhyme and Reason, who were able to solve all problems in ways that left everyone happy. Milo becomes interested in this quest -- it is something interesting to do!

By the end of the book, he realizes that he doesn't have to be unsatisfied all the time. There is much more to do in life than just sitting in his chair and waiting for the day to end. His quest ended, the Phantom Tollbooth disappears, as mysteriously as it appears. In its place, only a note, that begins:

Dear Milo: You have now completed your trip, courtesy of the Phantom Tollbooth. We trust that everything has been satisfactory and hope that you understand why we had to come and collect it.  You see, there are so many other boys and girls waiting to use it too...

The Phantom Tollbooth has nothing to do with phantoms. I'm pretty sure that some kids might get confused if I didn't put that out there. This is a great book, a lot like The Lost Track of Time, which I recently did a post onAnyway, this book must've been coated in a special kind of glue, because It was very, very hard for me to put it down, and I hope that it's the same for you too!


Daddy's afterthoughts: Originally, Julia had something in her conclusion that made reference to Doctor Who, suggesting that maybe this author was inspired by the TARDIS. However, this book was written in 1961, and Doctor Who started in 1963. But she's not altogether wrong, in that the "gateway to another world" is one of the all-time classic tropes in literature, cinema, and TV.

Let's see: The Wizard of Oz, Where the Wild Things Are, Stephen Donaldson's first and second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, The Chronicles of Narnia, Alice in Wonderland, the Magic Treehouse books (and the scores of young reader series like it)... and of course, Julia's most recent blog offering, Paige Britt's The Lost Track of Time.

But just because a trope is done a lot does not mean we should not appreciate it when it is done well. This is a classic book that all readers, 8-80, can enjoy.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

The Lost Track of Time, by Paige Britt

Image result for the lost track of time

Time. There's plenty of it. Especially free time. Unless you are Penelope. Her mother plans out every single thing Penelope is going to do every single day. No free time, at all! Until one day, Penelope finds a hole in her schedule. A big one. A whole day, nothing planned. Penelope wants to be a writer, so maybe she could write all day... But remember that huge hole? What do people do with holes? They fall in. And that is exactly what Penelope does.
Penelope falls into a mysterious land called "The Realm of Possibility." There she meets Dill, a young man who is an explorer. Dill tells her about the history of the Realm, how it was created by the Great Moodler, a woman who later disappeared when a man named Chronos took over. He had an army of Clockworkers, men and women who were devoted to serving him. Shortly after his takeover, he had his Clockworkers build clocks everywhere, and forced people to obey him. But before Chronos arrived, nobody cared about the time. Everyone simply... moodled. And what is moodling, you ask? Well, it is simply letting your mind wander. 

When Penelope meets Dill, they set out on a quest to find the Great Moodler and defeat Chronos, and on the way they will take an adventurous Flight of Fancy, push their way through the Naughty Woulds, and find various types of mushrooms. Penelope makes friends with the people and animals she finds in this strange new land. 

But Penelope needs to find the Great Moodler, because she wants to prove to her parents that writing is not a waste of time, but she can't, because she has writer's block. Only the Great Moodler, with her endless imagination, can help her.

Will she ever find the Great Moodler, and even if she does, how will Penelope ever get back home?

This is a truly fascinating story recommended for anyone who likes a seriously weird book. This book is a lot like The Phantom Tollbooth, with its "Island of Conclusions." In this book, the main character, Milo, has a lot of time on his hands (unlike Penelope!). He finds a tollbooth in his room, goes through and is transported to where he discovers a strange land, with places like "Dictionopolis" and "Digitopolis." What follows is a big adventure, which I'll tell you about in my next review!  

The Lost Track of Time will eventually let you go, that is, when you've finished the book, unlike the grip of time, which will never, ever, let you go.  


Daddy's afterthoughts:  A modern take on the classic Alice in Wonderland/Wizard of Oz/Narnia trope of falling through into another world to learn a life lesson, this book is a fun romp, with a Willy Wonka-esque/Oz-like sensibility. This book does pair well with The Phantom Tollbooth, so be on the lookout soon for her next posting!

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Dead City, by James Ponti

Image result for dead city

Dead City by James Ponti is about Molly Bigelow, geek, fencing student, and zombie killer. Yes, you read that correctly, she kills zombies. She lives in Manhattan, and is a middle-schooler at MIST (Metropolitan Institute of Science and Technology, an academy for gifted students), and likes to hang out at the morgue. Her mom worked there, so Molly likes it there. Molly's mom is dead by the way. (Does she stay that way, though?)

Molly joins a group of high-schoolers who called themselves the Omegas. Their job? To "police and protect the undead." It's a secret organization; the only way a person is even allowed to know it exists is if that person is invited to join. Molly doesn't join until...

Molly has been hanging out at the morgue with her best friend Natalie, who's in high school. One day, Molly is waiting at the subway station for the train. She sees this strange guy in the station and he smiles at her. His teeth are orange and yellow, which is seriously weird. Then this guy with the Crayola teeth attacks her. He slams Molly against the wall, yanks off a necklace that Molly is wearing that belonged to her mom - the necklace has a charm hanging from it, an omega charm, it turns out - but then they both hear a voice: "Dude, you'll want to give that back. It's a family heirloom." It is Natalie.

The zombie (really, what did you think he was?) seems to "recognize her and start[s] sizing her up." What follows is a fistfight that ends in Molly getting back her necklace, and Yellow-Teeth losing half his ear.

Natalie starts to tell Molly about the Omegas. It turns out that Natalie and some of her friends had been wondering for a year whether or not to recruit Molly for their team; Molly's mom had been an Omega, and had been well-known to the other Omegas before her death. Molly immediately agrees to join (well, almost immediately... she throws up on the train tracks first), and suddenly finds herself in a fight to save Manhattan as she knows it. And why does Molly join? Because:
 "After all, when your mom was a famous zombie hunter and has secretly trained you to be one too, you kind of have to follow in her footsteps."
If you ever read books with aliens or zombies, then this book is right for you. It has a sci-fi feel (there is some medical and scientific content, and it does take place at an institute of "science and technology"), and, who knows, there could be zombies in the future. And don't worry, there is nothing scary in this book! It's not a horror book. It's not meant to give you nightmares; it actually has some funny parts. It's kind of weird. And the cover is awesome.


Daddy's Afterthoughts:

Don't have much to say about this one. Didn't read it myself, yet, I confess. I would love to say that this book would be great to influence girls to get into STEM careers, but I'm not sure if Zombie Hunter is going to be a growth industry. I will say that the protagonist, Molly, is a seventh-grader, and so for the recommended reading range of this book (grades 5-8, according to Booklist), tweens can find a Just Right book featuring a character who is more or less like them. Except for all the zombies. My guess is it's not long before this gets made into a movie. Note: This is NOT associated with the 2007 British horror film of the same name.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Three Little Words, by Ashley Rhodes-Courter

Image result for three little words book

Three Little Words by Ashley Rhodes-Courter is a memoir (an autobiographical, true, story) of her nine years in foster care, starting from the day the police arrested her mother and placed her and her baby brother, Luke, in the foster care system, and ending a few years after Ashley was finally adopted at the age of 12. In those nine years she lived in fourteen different foster homes. As for the foster parents:   
 "Some were kind, a few were quirky, and one, Marjorie Moss, was as wicked as a fairy-tale witch."
At the Moss foster home, Marjorie Moss abuses the children in her care and then lies about it to the authorities to save her skin. She beats the children, locks them outside, threatens them with a gun, and pours hot sauce down their throats. Some of the kids try to tell what is going on, but nobody believes them. Mrs. Moss is a "model" foster parent, and even teaches classes for other foster parents(!). 

When Ashley grew older, she tried to sue Mrs. Moss and her husband, but once again, they lied so they would be safe. 

To this day, some foster parents still treat foster children like animals or objects, rather than human beings. This book is a first-person account of what happens in some foster homes. Ashley wrote a very detailed description of each foster home she lived in, how the foster parents treated her, and what she kept inside. All Ashley wants is to live with her mother again, but as time progresses, she wonders if her wish to be with her mother will ever come true.

This book is not to be read by children younger than 11 because parts of the book talk about things like molestation, sexual battery, and abuse. Ashley wants the world to know the hardships some foster children must endure, and has succeeded. Today Ashley is a foster mother herself and has cared for more than twenty kids. She gives speeches about the foster-care system and how to protect our nation's children. 

Find out more about Ashley at Look out for the sequel, Three More Words.


Daddy's afterthoughts: This book was one of the recommended titles for Julia's "summer reading" between 6th and 7th grade. This is some pretty heavy stuff for that age bracket. I remember when I was her age the controversy swirling around Judy Blume's books (especially Are You There God, It's Me, Margaret and Deenie), and whether or not they we appropriate for 10-12 year-olds. Those books seem innocent and sweet compared to some of what Ashley is exposed to in some of these homes. For mature tween readers, then, or for tween readers whose parents are ready to have some very grown-up conversations. But for what it's worth, Julia reports that she "loved" this book, and read it through 2 or 3 times before sitting down to write her post. And for what it's worth, this memoir is nowhere near as dark as the pseudo-memoir Go Ask Alice, and has a positive ending and strong message.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

The Secret Language of Sisters, by Luanne Rice

Image result for the secret language of sisters

The Secret Language of Sisters by Luanne Rice is about two teenage sisters, Roo and Tilly. Roo is driving to pick Tilly up from a museum and trying to answer Tilly's texts at the same time, and that only can lead to trouble. Roo looks up from her phone just in time to avoid hitting an old lady, and her car flips over, and is completely destroyed. Roo's body is paralyzed.

Later, while at the hospital, Tilly and her mother visit Roo, and Roo has a stroke right in front of them. The stroke results in locked-in syndrome; Roo can see, hear, and feel everything around her, but she can't move or speak at all. Everyone believes the stroke has caused Roo to be in a coma, and that she is not aware of anything that is going on around her. But this is not the case.

Deep down, Roo believes that she will live through this and someday be able to walk again.

Tilly had always been jealous of Roo. Roo was always the "special" one. She was talented, in all honors classes, and took incredible photographs that got her recognized. Saying that she is "smart" is an understatement. She's a genius. Before the accident, she had planned to apply to Yale University early decision, and was told she'd definitely get in. And she was beautiful. Is beautiful:
 “I don’t want to interrupt,” Newton said. “But can I try something out on you?”
 “Like what?” I asked.
“Well, you and Roo have the same-shaped face, right?”
“Basically. Only hers is gorgeous, with perfect cheekbones, and mine is plain.”
But now, Tilly is only focused on her sister getting better.

However, Tilly battles immense guilt because she feels like she's the one who caused the crash. She doesn't tell anyone (and no one finds Roo’s cell phone at first), so her guilt starts gnawing at her. Not to mention there is an assembly at her school about it and news reporters trying to interview her, making her feel even more guilty. To make things worse, before the crash, Roo had suggested to her boyfriend, Newton, that they put some space between them for a while. But during the time Roo is in the hospital, Tilly starts to develop feelings for Newton. She feels like the worst sister in the world, actually, the “worst person in the world.” 

This book's chapters alternate between Roo and Tilly narrating. I liked this style of narrating. The reader gets multiple sides of the same story, what each sister is thinking. For example, Tilly blames herself for Roo’s accident, but Roo feels differently. But she can’t tell her that… After the crash, there is a long series of surgeries and treatments in hospitals, and it gets so bad at one point that Roo actually believes it would be better if she were dead. But she can’t tell anybody that, either.

This book is probably best for people ages 12 and up, it talks about emotional and scary topics that little kids may find overwhelming, such as a loved one being very, very sick and you not knowing whether or not they will recover or die. The publisher's website says it recommends the book for grades 9 and up (age 13+). But felt like I connected with the characters – I felt like I was right there, on the spot, being one of the characters in the book. When something good happened to them, I felt happy with them. When something tragic happened, I felt sad. I’m only 11 going on 12, so I think any student, middle school and up, could read this.


Daddy's afterthoughts:  I bought this book for Julia at a Scholastic book fair at her elementary school. So apparently somebody thought it was appropriate for a grade 5 or 6 reader. I was actually surprised to see that Scholastic recommends it for only high school level readers.

Julia really connected with this book; that was nice to see. But she came away with the sense that the accident was either Tilly's fault, or that blame was equally shared. In reality - anyone of driving age should know this - the fault lies with the driver. I have read other reviews of this book that criticized the author for doing too little to drive that point home (no pun intended): See for example here, and here. But this is something that is easily ameliorated with a parent conversation after reading.

I am a fan of the switching-narrators technique. This book struck me as kind of an adolescent After-School-Special-Lifetime-Movie-of-the-Week-YA version of Dalton Trumbo's Johnny Got His Gun, a war-protest novel whose chapters alternate between the locked-in thoughts of a blind, deaf, limbless combat casualty in a hospital and flashbacks to the same character's earlier life, when he was young and whole. Haunting. But not for tween readers. Barbara Kingsolver does something similar in The Poisonwood Bible, one of my favorite books, alternating between 4 or 5 (it's been a while, sorry) different characters' points-of-view; like Sisters, one of the characters is mute. A beautiful and mesmerizing read. Also not for tween readers. What's my point? I have no idea. Just wanted to plug two awesome books for the grown-ups out there.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

A Tale Dark & Grimm, by Adam Gidwitz

Image result for a tale dark and grimm

"Once upon a time, fairy tales were awesome." Those are the first words of Adam Gidwitz's A Tale Dark & Grimm, which is the story of Hansel and Gretel mashed up with 8 other fairy tales sprinkled with a little violence. Because Adam means "awesome" in the horrible, bloody way. Warning: This book is not for the faint-hearted.

This book starts before Hansel and Gretel are born. Their father is crowned the King of Grimm, and his servant, "Faithful Johannes," describes to him all the responsibilities of being king and takes him on a tour of the castle. In the last room they visit, the king sees a portrait of a golden princess; he falls in love with her, and faints. When he wakes, he orders his servants to ready a ship. He will go to the island of the golden princess and claim her.

When they arrive at the island where the princess lives, they trick her into boarding the ship, and they sail back with her. Three ravens speak of three dangers the king and princess will encounter when they docked. Johannes overhears the ravens speaking, and heroically saves the couple from the dangers.  But when he explains to the king what he has done and why, he is turned to stone. The king and his new wife put the stone Johannes in their bedroom. Faithful Johannes.

Then Hansel and Gretel are born. This novel is the story of Hansel and Gretel. Actually, eight stories of Hansel and Gretel. They begin like this:

One night the king is in his room with his kids when he collapses at the foot of the statue and starts to cry. When his tears graze the stone, Johannes speaks. He says that to bring him back to life, the king has to cut the heads off his kids and smear the statue with their blood. The king does this…


…and Johannes comes out of the stone and revives Hansel and Gretel. The king tells his queen what has happened, and she is happy.


But Hansel and Gretel hear it all. (Their father cut off their heads, and their mother was glad?) They decide to run away – duh! – and find some decent parents who won’t hurt them.

About a year later, and after a series of sad, bloody, and terrifying events around the kingdom of Grimm – each chapter is a whole new Grimm fairy tale (with Hansel and Gretel stuck in as the main characters) – they learn that a dragon has come to the kingdom. Hansel and Gretel decide to return to, and try to save, their home. Even though, you know, their dad killed them and all…

Have you read the original versions of fairy tales, not the Disney versions? In the Grimms’ “Cinderella,” for example, the stepsisters cut off parts of their feet to fit into the shoe. And at the wedding, where the Prince finally marries Cinderella, the wicked stepsisters’ eyes are pecked out by pigeons.

This book tells these stories the Grimm way.

It’s gory, but there is humor in it. I didn’t find any of it scary or anything. But here’s a tip: tell your mom that this is a book of fairy tales or she may take the book away from you. Besides, you’ll be telling the truth, not lying! Adam Gidwitz wrote this captivating novel in such a way that young readers will be entranced until the very last word.

And look out for the sequels: In a Glass Grimmly, and The Grimm Conclusion!   


Daddy's afterthoughts: I think in an earlier post's Afterthoughts section, I made reference to the glut of authors re-hashing old stories, myths, and fairly tales, and repackaging them as YA novels. I'm not the only one raising a hairy eyebrow at this movement. Elizabeth Bird, writing for School Library Journal, began her review of this same book thus: 
Didn’t want to read this. Nope. Not a jot. Three reasons for that. First off, the title. I’ve said it about twenty times since reading it and every time I can’t quite get it right (derivations have included “Something Dark and Grimm”, “A Grimm Tale”, and “Something Grimm”). Second, the jacket of the hardcover edition of this book isn’t particularly new. Silhouettes against a blue background. Ho hum. Third, I couldn’t believe that I was dealing with yet ANOTHER middle grade novel adapting fairy tales in new ways. After a while the The Sisters Grimm / The Grimm Legacy titles out there begin to meld together. From The Goose Girl to Into the Wild to Sisters Red I sometimes feel as if I am a little tired of fairy tales.
However, to her surprise, she writes, "Gidwitz’s debut is unlike anything I’ve ever encountered before."

Hansel and Gretel wend their way through the landscapes and stolen plot-lines of several lesser-known Grimm tales, like "Faithful Johannes." (Children will not know most of them, and most parents won't either.) This book is fun, and dark. The narrator has kind of a Princess Bride thing going. He pokes, cajoles, goofs. The violence is unflinching, but only really offensive if you are a.) used to Disney's sanitized versions of things, and b.) bound and committed to keeping your children sheltered to that degree. As Bird writes, "The kids are fine with it. It's the parents who can't take it." I have no problem recommending this for ages 10+.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Delirium, by Lauren Oliver

Image result for Delirium book

Delirium by Lauren Oliver is about Lena Haloway and her life in an alternate USA where love has been declared the deadliest disease ever. All people at the age of 18 must undergo a procedure called the Cure. Until then, people are not allowed contact with the opposite gender, for if they do, they may fall in love.

They say, if you get the Cure, you will never feel pain again.

Once cured, people are assigned a college, a major, and a mate. They are not allowed to choose whom they want to marry. They are told how many kids to have, and given a job for life. They believe that love truly is a disease, and being cured, everything will be all right. Once cured, their lives are set on a track and all planned out; they don't have to worry about what will happen to them. They are safe. The people all end up happy.

Except Lena's mother.  

The government scientists tried to administer the Cure three times, but it never worked. But before they could try a fourth time, Lena's mother killed herself. Her last words to Lena: "I love you. Remember. They cannot take it." 

Lena is looking forward to the time when she receives the Cure. She won't feel the pain that she feels when she thinks about her mother; it will disappear. She will be "safe, free from pain." 

Until she meets Alex, a boy about her age. They start spending time together more and more often. What will happen to them if they fall in love? This would be forbidden. The government controls what everyone does. The people don't get to choose their own path; it is chosen for them. It is laid out in a nice neat line, no curves. And they are happy this way, mostly. 

But this is not okay, is it? The government is stripping people of a basic right: the power to choose -- to choose how they want their lives to be, to even choose how they feel. It's perfectly fine for the government to want everybody to feel safe and happy, but by stripping away basic rights and freedoms -- that's not right, is it? Even if most of the citizens do feel more relaxed and happy and safe?

Lena's friend Hana says that in order to be truly happy, maybe you have to be unhappy sometimes. And Alex is a resister, and an "Invalid," someone who lives out in the Wilds, avoiding the law. But Lena is looking forward to her Cure; will they persuade her to change her mind?

This book is kind of like The Hunger Games, with a corrupt government trying to control everything that people do. Both books' heroines are female teenagers of about the same age. There is one big difference, however -- In The Hunger Games, everybody (except the citizens in the Capitol) knows that the Reaping and the Games are terrible, and an injustice. In Delirium, most people agree with the government and are okay with the Cure. Even Lena is excited about getting her Cure soon. At first.

Delirium is about love, but it is also about standing up for what is important to you.

This book is long (over 440 pages) and the characters use a lot of swear words; this book is not for younger readers. It is a little more mature than The Hunger Games; there is less violence in this book, but the plot is harder to grasp. Middle school students and up will enjoy this, especially if they liked The Hunger Games.


Daddy's afterthoughts:  Julia does not know the word "dystopia," so I'll supply it. This book (actually, the first book of a short series) is an excellent entry into the canon of YA dystopian fiction. It bears some resemblances to the aforementioned Hunger Games series, as well as the Divergent trilogy. It bears thematic similarity to Lois Lowry's The Giver, which many students will read in 7th, 8th, or 9th grade, as well as Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.'s short story "Harrison Bergeron," Ayn Rand's Anthem, and the dystopian novel supreme, 1984. (I do NOT recommend 1984 for 11 to 13 year-olds, though The Giver and Anthem are very readable by junior high school readers).


WELCOME to my blog about books I have read, and books I recommend.

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...