Sunday, September 23, 2018

Sing A Song Of Tuna Fish, by Esme Raji Codell

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Esme Raji Codell wrote this book to tell about all the exciting events that occurred during her fifth grade year. In the introduction, Esme says that your our minds are like attics, and that memories are like paper; they can crumble and turn to dust, so we put them in boxes that get packed away. She found these memories in "boxes" her "attic," and she wanted to share them with us.

Sing a Song of Tuna Fish is a memoir, but unlike Three Little Words, a memoir I reviewed earlier, this book does not focus on tragic memories. Instead, it focuses on the times that had an impact for Esme, those memories that left a mark, often in funny ways. 

She tells about when she egged a car with her mother; a red Jaguar was parked in front of a fire hydrant near their apartment, and her mom didn't like it, so she had Esme egg the car from the balcony. She tells about the Chicago neighborhood she lived in, and talks about some of the stores, restaurants, and other places in the town, such as the local bakery, the laundromat, and the gift shop. In addition, she talks about her schooling experiences, her childhood thoughts about love, a party she and her cousin threw for their grandma, and a few other things. It's a little bit of everything.

The book is like a journal of her per-teen life, and proof that even a "regular" kid's ordinary, everyday life is worth writing about. Her stories will make you smile. If you go back and read my review of Nothing, by Annie Barrows, the theme is similar. Ordinary kids actually lead pretty interesting lives, if they stop to think about it a little. 

Codell says that we all have these memories stored away in our mental "attic," and we just have to find them, and wipe away the dust once in a while. She goes up into her attic and dusts off some wonderful stories.

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Daddy's afterthoughts: I've heard tell that Esme Raji Codell does the reading herself for this book's audiobook, and that she imbues it with some real personality. This collection of vignettes is full of whimsy and some funny OMG moments. The perspective of a 10-year-old is good for that. She writes about her fifth-grade self, so the book targets that age range, I suppose (9 to 11), but I read the book and think that adults will warm to it as well. As YA memoirs go, it is not at all heavy and adult-themed like The House on Mango Street, but it still retains a sense of seriousness and sincerity even through the hilarity and silly bits, and there are discussions of mature topics that may stimulate conversation with younger readers like school life, love, money, and religion (Codell is Jewish, and much of the storytelling is infused with cultural references familiar to those of us that grew up in Jewish households; for others, perhaps somewhat less familiar). Codell provides lesson plans and discussion guides to accompany the book at: //www.planetesme.com/tunafish.html

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.

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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

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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!

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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).

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