Monday, December 04, 2006

The Aunts go Marching, by Maurie J. Manning, 2003

A minor twist on the well-known song produces Manning's hundred-plus aunts in raincoats and umbrellas marching to market, led by one very sweet-cheeked little aunt with red drum and yellow slicker. Less of a story, more of a showcase of Manning's illustrative talents, and a nostalgic tribute to the frumpy, endearing aunt-figures of days gone by, in their dresses and rainboots and caps and grocery satchels. A visual pleasure, and my children enjoyed chanting the words and drumbeats, even if I was impatient to get to ten and be done with it.

Cousin Ruth's Tooth, by Amy MacDonald, ill. Marjorie Priceman, 1996

A lost tooth and a houseful of exuberant relatives concoct a colorful mixup in this rhyming romp. Whimsy abounds in the very extended family's efforts to locate or replace Ruth's dental loss, however, the poem's play does run away with itself eventually, and this reader felt less might have been more. Still, lively and fun. Recommended.

Marshmallow, by Claire Turlay Newberry, 1942

What happens when a baby bunny invades a bachelor cat's Manhattan apartment sanctuary? Friendship, or lunch? Newberry's charcoal illustrations of cat and rabbit are delectable. Six decades of stylistic prose changes to the picturebook notwithstanding, the sweetness and warmth of "Marshmallow" come shining through. Strongly recommended.

The Awful Aardvarks Go to School, by Reeve Lindbergh, ill. Tracey Campbell Pearson, 1997

When a quartet of ADD aardvarks invade a multi-species elementary, it takes the whole alphabet to recount the damage. Surprise, whimsy, rhyme, meter, story, tension, and a clever ending all invite multiple rereadings. Phonetics alone are a pleasure. The dread I usually feel when faced with a) an alphabet book, and b) a rhyming book, were happily unnecessary here. Strongly recommended.

The Red Bird, by Astrid Lindgren, trans. by Patricia Crampton, ill. Marit Tornqvist, 2005 (text 1959)

Poor orphans Marit and Anna live drab grey lives of cold and sorrow, toiling to milk and muck the cows of the Myra farmer. They live only for the winter session of school, but there they are mocked for their poverty and hunger. When all reason to live on is gone, a red bird appears and leads them to a place of eternal spring. A haunting and melancholy storybook, offering hope, solace, and many possible interpretations. Delicate, evocative illustrations. Recommended.

Sally and the Some-Thing, by George O'Connor, 2006.

When home gets boring, Sally goes fishing, until something slithery comes out of the pond to meet her. Strong, concise characterization; subtle and sustained humor throughout on several levels; skilfull and richly-textured illustrations enhance its pleasures. Far from boring. Recommended.

Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch, by Trinka Hakes Noble, ill. Tony Ross, 1987

Nothing much ever happens to Farmer Hicks in the slow-movin' West. For his wife, Elna, there's never a dull moment, with kittens, puppies, piglets, colts, and calves born, prizes and inheritances won, and oil discovered. A tongue-in-cheek picture book with cartoonish illustrations. For this reader, the attempted humor fell as flat as the Western horizon. Not recommended.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

The Time Hackers, by Gary Paulsen, 2005

Dorso's getting tired of holographic artifacts, such as rotting corpses, showing up in his locker. When Custer and Beethoven appear and seem to see Dorso, defying all the tenets of the grandfather rule of the paradox of time, he realizes something's wrong with his time travel circuitry, and so long as he has his laptop with him, he's liable to be swept into a critical juncture of history, and right in the line of fire. As with most time travel fiction, the attempt to explain the metaphysical premise grows convoluted and wearisome. However, this novel packs a lot of action and humor into remarkably few pages. Dorso's friend Frank singlehandedly justifies the paper the novel is printed on. A fun, quick read; recommended.

Taking Care of Moses, by Barbara O'Conor, 2004

Someone left a baby on the steps of the Rock of Ages Baptist Church, and the whole town of Foley, South Carolina, is in an uproar about it. Nobody knows whose baby it is -- not childless Pastor Jennings and his wife Charlotte, who quickly "adopt" the baby; not Miss Freida the foster mother who's got a license to care for him. Only Randall Mackey knows. But he can't tell. And it's pretty much tearing him and Foley in two. A strong sense of place infuse the dialogue and conflict; Jaybird and Althea are literary siblings not soon forgotten. Strongly recommended.

Midnight Magic, by Avi, 1999

Fabrizio, 12-yr old servant to ex-magician Mangus, accompanies his master when summoned to the castello to help the King by exorcising a ghost who haunts the princess Teresina. Mangus, who has sworn off magic trickery, believes in reason, not ghosts, and he despairs of his life, for if he does not find the ghost, King Claudio will kill him, and the king's evil advisor, Count Scarazoni, will kill him if he does. There's nothing left but for Fabrizio to take the mystery into his own hands. But is he a player or a pawn in a ghostly game of chess? Strongly recommended for fans of historical whodunnits.

The Young Man and the Sea, by Rodman Philbrick, 2004

Not since Skiff Beaman's mom dad has his dad, Big Skiff, gotten off the couch or off the bottle, and so it's up to 12-year old Skiff to run the house and rescue their sunken fishing boat, the Mary Rose. But fixing her waterlogged engine will cost at least five grand, and the Beamans, who live in the last house along the river with an outhouse, ("swampers" as rich kid Tyler Croft calls his folks), can't afford it. Lobstering doesn't earn money fast enough, so when a sportfisher harpoons a giant tuna that commands $6k from a sushi tuna buyer, Skiff hatches a plan. A strong, authentic voice carries a heroic yet believable plot all the way to its surprising close. Strongly recommended.

The Little Gentleman, by Phillippa Pearce, 2004

Bet doesn't know why Mr. Franklin has asked her to read a scientific book about worms while sitting on a log in a meadow, but she doesn't mind doing it anyway. Mr. Franklin isn't cracked in the head after all, she learns, when a mole pops his snout out of his hole and starts speaking with her about earthworms, Mr. Franklin, and the failed Jacobite plot of 1702 to place James of Scotland on the British throne. Contemporary fiction meets history by way of an underground twist, and "the little gentleman in the velvet coat" whose hole caused King William's horse to trip, comes to life in modernity and tells his story. A delicate hand makes this extraordinary premise believable and delightful. Recommended.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Jim's Lion, by Russell Hoban, ill. by Ian Andrew, 2001

Bami, Jim's African hospital nurse, understands exactly how frightened Jim feels of his illness, and of surgeries. She invites him to visit his quiet place and meet his finder, a frightening animal that can give him strength and find him and bring him back, should he ever get lost in the darkness that leads to death. A sober and lovely book, with dreamlike illustrations that expressively capture both Jim's hope and his pain. This reader cried. Strongly recommended.

The Game of Sunken Places, by M.T. Anderson, 2004

Gregory Buchanan and Brian Thatz think they're going to spend a leisurely October holiday in Vermont with Gregory's eccentric uncle Max and cousin Prudence in their rambling Victorian mansion. Instead, they find themselves plunged into a game of mythical stakes and origins, in which figures from Nordic legend are their hunters and allies, and a gruesome death awaits any slipup. Their enigmatic host is no help, but behaves suspiciously at every turn. Schoolboy adventure fantasy reminiscent of, and written in tribute to, a lurid style of fiction of yesteryear. Imaginative, a memorable troll and lots of spine-tingling danger. However, a confusing text that galloped too quickly leaving setting fuzzy and too many questions unanswered. Still, for those who throw caution to the wind, recommended.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Whistle for Willie, by Ezra Jack Keats, ill. by the author, 1964

Peter wants to whistle so he can summon his dog, Willie, but blow as he might, nothing comes out but air, until he wears his father's cap . . . Appealing urban illustrations, colorful style and visual design.

Long Night Moon, by Cynthia Rylant, ill. by Mark Siegel, 2004

Following the names given by Native Americans to each month's unique full moon, the text and pictures take readers through a circle of seasons and of nocturnal nature in a lovely bedtime book. Soft, luminous illustrations and poetry celebrate the moon and the creatures of the night. Recommended.

When I Was Young in the Mountains, by Cynthia Rylant, ill. by Diane Goode, 1982

Autobiographical recollections and vignettes from the author's Appalachian childhood paint a loving, nostalgic picture of a rich upbringing despite rural poverty. Muted, affectionate illustrations gently accompany the lyrical text. Strongly recommended.

Puppy Love, by Dick King-Smith, ill. by Anita Jeram, 1997

Nostalgic photo-album-like replay of the author's family's many puppies. Scrumptious illustrations and strong subject-matter appeal subdue the problem of a middle-aged first-person point of view and voice. The illustrations didn't make it clear to me who was speaking until several pages in, which I found disconcerning; I expected one of the three children often featured to be the focal character, and kept trying to figure out which one it was. Not a story but a celebration of puppy charms; kids and dogs lovers will lap it up.

Chicks and Salsa, by Aaron Reynolds, ill. by Paulette Bogan, 2005

The chickens at Nuthatcher Farm are tired of feed, so the rooster, who's been watching the farmer's wife's cooking TV shows, stages a raid of the tomato and onion patches, and whips up salsa, though no one knows where they got the chips. The ducks follow suit with Quackamole, then the pigs make nachos, and soon the barn's raring for a fiesta. Comical illustrations and a farcical plot; a fun premise (shades of Click, Clack, Moo), but the ending lacked that certain je ne sais quoi. Still, recommended.

Leon and Bob, by Simon James (ill. by author), 1997

When Leon's dad goes away with the Army, he and his mother move into a new house in town. He spends his solitude with Bob, a friend no one else can see, who likes listening to Dad's letters and eating breakfast cereal with Leon. But when a new boy moves in next door, Leon's courage and Bob's companionship nearly fail him. Expressive and engaging illustrations complement this sensitive, non-patronizing picture book. We need only two pages to love Leon -- and Bob. The simple ending is a gem -- at once both inevitable and magical. Strongly recommended.

Rain is Not My Indian Name, by Cynthia Leitich Smith, 2001

The day she turns 14, Cassidy Rain Berghoff's best friend (and more), Galen, is killed in an accident, and Rain spends almost the next six months in a coccoon of emptiness and grief, unaware that around her rumors are spreading and lives are changing. As one of only a few Native Americans in her small town of Hannesburg, Kansas, Rain is roped into reluctantly participating (as a photo-journalist) at Indian Camp, where bridges are built, destroyed, and built again. A thoughtful realistic portrayal of grief and healing. Rain's voice and modern-day, mixed-blood Native American sensibilities are convincing. Recommended.

The Whipping Boy, by Sid Fleischman, 1986

Jemmy-from-the-streets is a rat-catcher by birth and preference, but a royal whipping boy by occupation -- plucked from the sewers to live in the palace and take Prince Brat's countless whippings for him. When the prince grows bored of palace life and runs away, he makes Jemmy accompany him, but after they're captured by bandits, it's Jemmy's wit and resource that gets them out of one scrape after another and tests the prince's mettle. Tight, sharp, witty storytelling; strongly recommended.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Each Little Bird that Sings, by Deborah Wiles, 2005

"We live to serve" is the motto at Snowberger's Funeral Home in Snapfinger, Mississippi, but for 10-year old Comfort Snowberger, the hardest services is being nice to her whiny, runny-nosed cousin Peach, who pukes at family funerals and makes a mess of everything. What's worse, when Comfort's best friend Declaration doesn't want to come to Comfort's great-great-aunt Florentine's funeral, Comfort has an emotional storm to go through, and how could she do it without her trusty happy dog, Dismay, by her side? Funny, tender, heartbreaking, heartwarming; characters (and names!) never to forget. Strongly recommended.

Friday, October 20, 2006

The Phantom Tollboth, by Norton Juster, 1961

What's the point to anything a kid is taught at school? That's what Milo wants to know. To him, neither school nor pastimes have any rhyme or reason to them. But when a mysterious tollboth appears in his own bedroom, he drives off in his electric car to a land where idioms spring to life, where everything -- and nothing -- is literal, where allegory and admonition abound yet are never unwelcome. Delightfully written and illustrated, refreshing and funny and thought-provoking. Strongly recommended.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

The Goose Girl, by Shannon Hale, 2003

Crown Princess Anidori-Kiladra Talianna Isilee was called Ani by her aunt, and Princess by her horse, Falada, with whom she shared a psychic bond, and the Jewel of Kildenree by her mother, the Queen, who senther off to marry the Crown Prince of Bayern, giving the crown of Kildenree to Ani's younger brother. But her escorts are traitors who try to kill her and deliver her blond lady-in-waiting, Selia, to the prince of Bayern as his betrothed. A thoughtful novelization of Grimms' fairy tale, The Goose Girl is captivating read (even if this reader wishes the final version had been better edited). Strongly recommended.

The Doll People, by Ann M. Martin & Laura Godwin, 2000

Annabelle Doll lives with Mama, Papa, Nana, Bobby, Baby Betsy, and Uncle Doll in Kate Palmer's bedroom, but Auntie Sarah Doll has been missing for over 45 years. Her family thinks it's too dangerous to venture out to find Auntie Sarah -- after all, they could end up frozen in Permanent Doll State, and lose their ability to think and move and talk! But Annabelle is determined, and with the help of her new friend Tiffany Funcraft, a plastic doll belonging to Kate's little sister, Annabelle finds a way. An interesting addition to the small (and dying) genre of doll stories, the text will appeal to girl readers in grades 2-4.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Love, Ruby Lavender, by Deborah Wiles, 2001

Where would nine year-old Ruby Lavendar be without her grandmother, Miss Eula? High and dry in Haleluia, Mississippi, that's where, spending the summer missing Miss Eula terribly, writing her letters, adn wishing she could see their chickens roosting over their eggs. And surely Miss Eula could advise Ruby on how to treat snotty Melba Jane, who keeps harping on about the accident that happened last summer. Warm, Southern, war & redemption & chickens, and a handful of characters to savor. Recommended.

Born to Rock, by Gordon Korman, 2006

Leo Caraway knew at 10 that his dad wasn't his bio-dad, but not until 17 did he discover that the name on his birth certificate belongs to King Maggot, lord of the punk rock scene, and lead singer of Purge, a hard-edged 80's band. But it takes unfairly losing his scholarship to Harvard for Leo to seek out his millionaire bio-dad in hopes of tuition assistance, and that's how Leo, an erstwhile member of the Young Republicans club, finds himself touring with Purge's summer comeback tour. Never a dull moment, lots of aging rocker humor. Romance was the novel's flat side, some teen sex present, not explicit but also unproblematized.

Friday, September 22, 2006

James and the Giant Peach, by Roald Dahl, 1961

It takes a little magic to rescue James Henry Trotter from his miserable like with Aunts Spiker and Sponge. He gets more than a little magic when some curious squirmy things makes a wizened peach tree sprout a peach the size of a house, inhabited by human-sized worms and bugs. Why shouldn't James and his insect friends sail across the Atlantic Ocean by seagull, pursued by sharks and cloud men? With Dahl, anything's possible. Marvelously absurd and surreal fantasy; verse songs are a highlight. Strongly recommended.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

A Door Near Here, by Heather Quarles, 1998

There's no food in the house, and little money; Mom's passed out drunk and has been for months; the kitchen sink is spewing dirty water all over the kitchen; and Alisa, Katherine's eight-year old sister wants a stamp to mail a letter to C.S. Lewis to ask him where is the nearest door leading to Narnia. Katherine, Tracey, and Douglas have enough to worry about, holding their family together and shielding their situation from teachers who might turn them in to DSS and pull them apart. Exceptional realism grappling with parental abandonment and neglect, and a haunting, lovely tribute to Lewis and his legacy. Strongly recommended.

Monday, September 18, 2006

A Wind in the Door, by Madeline L'Engle, 1973

Meg's 6-year old genius brother Charles Wallace needs rescuing again, but not from the fascist/communist villians on Camazotz -- this time, he needs saving from his own mitochondria, where evil’s seeping influence is corrupting the young and vital farandolae. It's up t0 Meg, a feathery many-eyed cherubim, Calvin, and dour, officey elementary principal Mr. Jenkins, to help him. Theology in humanist clothing, a fantasy sequel to A Wrinkle in Time that does not live up to the first novel's promise, and feels much more overtly philophical and religious. Borrows heavily from the science fiction of C.S. Lewis, particularly his Perelandra trilogy.

The Meanest Girl, by Debora Allie, 2005

Alyssa's best friend Chelsea's got no excuse for inviting Hayden, the meanest girl at PS 58, to her birthday slumber party, but she goes ahead and does it, and that's just the beginning of her odd behavior, leaving Alyssa confused and mad. And what's gotten into her sort-of boyfriend, Dillon? And who's leaving weird stuff in her locker? And what if cute Mr. Carter reads what she's written about him in her English class writing journal? Sixth grade is pretty hectic, and it's hard to chill, but a little bird teaches Alyssa a thing or two. Fun middle-grade realism. Recommended.

The Mouse and the Motorcycle, by Beverly Cleary, 1965.

Keith is a guest at the Mountainview Hotel, and Ralph is a permanent occupant, but their love of motorcycles (and the magic of sound effects) forges a friendship between the two adventure-loving boys, even if Keith is a human and Ralph is a mouse. Loyalty, bravery, generosity, and high adventure all are possible three inches above the floor. Suitable for elementary ages. Recommended.

P.S. Longer Letter Later, by Paula Danziger and Ann M. Martin

Tara*Starr and Elizabeth are about as different as two seventh grade girls can be, but their strong friendship (and candid letter writing) carries them through their first year apart after Tara*Starr moves to Ohio. Tara's family rebuilds itself, while Elizabeth's unravels, and both find their way across the threshold of young adulthood in very different ways. A successful and engaging use of the epistolary format, successful perhaps in part because the two voices were penned by two authors, and thus remained distinct and in dialogue. Recommended.

Whistler's Hollow, by Debbie Dadey, 2002

When Lillie Mae's daddy didn't come back from the Great War in France, and her Mama was killed in a factory accident, and Aunt Helen made no secret of not wanting her, there was only one place to go: Whistler's Hollow, clear on the other side of Kentucky, to live with Daddy's Uncle Dallas and Aunt Esther. They welcome her warmly, but their young friend Paul does not. And what's Paul always toting around in Uncle Dallas's violin case? Short, moving middle grade historical fiction, with its share of dangers and surprises.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Shug, by Jenny Han, 2006

All Annemarie 'Shug' Wilcox wants in this whole wide world is for Mark Frindley, her best friend and boy-next-door, to like her back. But he's got the hots for her gorgeous 16-year old sister Celia, like every other boy in town, and it looks like he's paired off with another seventh-grade girl. All the other new junior high students are pairing off, too, but Shug can't talk to her mom about it, because she's rarely sober, nor her father, because he's rarely home. Sterling middle-grade realism. A triumphant first novel that delivers on the promise of its opening, and then some, blending humor and tragedy adroitly. Complex, gritty, endearing characters and a voice that reeled this reader in hook, line, and sinker. Most strongly recommended.

Monday, September 11, 2006

A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K. Le Guin, 1968.

Sparrowhawk is marked as a child by his extraordinary power, and sent as a youth to be trained as a wizard. Pride dogs his steps, and succumbing to it he unwittingly unleashes into the world a terrible Shadow, a thing of darkness and unlife that seeks to devour him. The narrative employs a "high" fantasy voice to recount Sparrowhawk's wanderings, and includes a characteristic blending of philosophy and epic. More memorable for setting than character, and for image than for action, its climax disappoints and its protagonist, while admittedly following the convention of the flat quest hero in high fantasy, leaves me wishing for more to grasp. A narrative endowed with a stylistic excellence and burdened by overmuch contrivance and hollow philosophy. I could not enjoy it as much as I wished to.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Gossamer, by Lois Lowry, 2006

Littlest One and her trainer creep under doorsills and flutter throughout houses while people sleep, hovering over their special things and finding fragments of memory. They blow these fragments into sleeping human ears to bestow dreams upon them, dreams of laughter and hope and courage. But in one house, where eight-year old John waits to be reunited with his mother, nightmares stamp and whinny at the door. A blessedly Freud-free dramatic exploration of dreams; a different approach to middle-grade fiction about foster children and child abuse. Compact, potent, a persuasive fantasy, a hopeful overcoming. Recommended.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Rosie Cole's Memoir Explosion, by Sheila Greenwald, 2006

Rosy's not satisfied with her assignment to write about an interesting relative, so when her college-age sister Pippa suggests she write a memoir about herself instead, Rosy is easily convinced. But the more she tries to follow the format suggested by a Memoir How-To guide, the more she writes a pack of fibs that alienates friends and family. Geared to ages 8-12. Rosy's reasoning during this memoir process is unconvincing; feels like a failed attempt to channel Harriet the Spy. Not recommended.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Aquamarine, by Alice Hoffman, 2001

Claire and Hailey spend the dog days of August at the decrepit Capri Beach Club, slated for dismantling at the end of the summer, just like their friendship, which will be torn apart when Claire's family moves in September. When a storm sweeps a torrent of ocean water, plants, and animals into the the Capri's swimming pool, Claire and Hailey are amazed to find it brings a mermaid with it. A flat, disappointing narrative that treats its characters as undifferentiated objects, always tells and never shows, and completely misses its opportunities for drama and emotional tension. Not recommended.

Moose Crossing, by Stephanie Greene, 2005

When highway workers put a "Moose Crossing" sign up near Moose's house, notions of celebrity go to his head, so much so that he can't be bothered to swim with his best friend Hildy. But when moosewatching fans show up by the dozens, Moose gets to rethink his priorities. Suitable for 6-8 year old readers.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Hazel Green, by Odo Hirsch, 2000

Hazel Green, the unofficial ruler of kid-dom in the Moodey Building, thinks that children should march once more in the Frogg Day parade. Her view is not unanimous, though, and even her allies prove irksome as their float-building project unfolds. Hazel is memorable; not your run-of-the-mill spunky girl heroine (though she certainly is that). Though the story tells the entirely plausible adventures of modern (sort of) children in a large urban apartment building, its echo is that of a fairy tale, with a nostalgic pang. Written with a true hand, the narrative shows glimmers of stylistic uniqueness that are refreshing and never overdone. Strongly recommended.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Stargirl, by Jerry Spinelli, 2000

Her arrival at Mica High is all anyone talks about; her antics keep everyone guessing. Bizarre? Trendsetting? Freakish? A saint? What is Stargirl? Leo wants to know, almost as much as he wants to be with her -- at least until her differance costs too much. Young adult realism that borders upon the magical, or mystical, yet keeps its feet firmly planted in old, old soil. Astute perceptions make this implausible tale believable and memorable. Strongly recommended.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Bird, by Angela Johnson, 2004

Bird is a runaway searching for someone who left. Jay is a juvenile under house arrest mourning what has died. Ethan is luckier than he realizes -- he has the thing both of them want most, and can never get back. Three young people's stories weave together in a short realistic novel of melancholy beauty. My appetite for happy endings was left half-unfed, but I salute the honesty in this mature story of finding pardon, finding kindness, and letting go. Strongly recommended.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Dear Mrs. Ryan, You're Ruining My Life, by Jennifer B. Jones, 2000

Harvey Ryan wishes his mom, a children's book author, would stop putting his exploits into every book. It's embarrassing. Harv and his friend Seal (short for Cecilia) cook up a plan to distract his mom from writing by fixing her up with Mr. Stevens, the school principal. Their plan works a little too well; having your mom date the principal may be even more embarrassing. A light middle-grade novel involving sports, friendship, bullying, and dealing with divorce.

Aleutian Sparrow, by Karen Hesse, 2003

The Aleutian Islands curve from the westernmost tip of Alaska toward Russia, dividing the Pacific Ocean from the Bering Sea. Vera, an Aleut from the island of Kashega, is one of 800 evacuated to a camp by the U.S. government in 1942 after the Japanese attack Unalaska island. Displaced Aleuts were treated more like the enemy than Germans in P.O.W. camps, suffering disease, malnutrition, unsanitary conditions, and ostracization from nearby Alaskan towns. Only 3 in 4 lived to return to their ravaged homes which U.S. soliders had occupied. Vera's fictional story, based on the true story of a fragile culture in crisis, is told in this non-rhyming novel in verse. Sensitive treatment of a little-known chapter in American history provides an opportunity for young people to consider the human and moral costs of displacement policy. Strongly recommended.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The Misfits, by James Howe, 2001

Bobby, Addie, Joe, and Skeezie (aka Lardo, Beanpole, Fairy, and Greaseball) are a seventh-grade "Gang of Five," just to keep people guessing. Addie gets it into her CEO-type brain that they should form a new political party at Paintbrush Falls Middle School, and run for student office on the Freedom platform, but Bobby figures out that putting an end to name-calling is the real freedom Paintbrush Falls middle schoolers need. Memorable characters, humor, and voice complement a playful tone that successfully imparts a serious message. The text's many pleasures outweigh its to-be-expected preaching, and if the "Gang of Five" feels more like college freshmen than seventh graders in their activism, introspection, and witty repartees, I forgive them. Recommended.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Heartbeat, by Sharon Creech, 2004

12-year old Annie loves running, barefoot, with her friend Max, but she doesn't want to compete. Moody Max is just the opposite. Annie's mother is pregnant, her grandfather is ailing of dementia, and she has an art teacher who assigns her an apple to draw one hundred times. A middle-grade novel in verse using entirely free form. Annie's character felt contrived, genderless and personlity-less, and her story lacked meaningful conflict or change; other than the baby's birth there was no plot progression or climax; details felt haphazard, manipulated, or preachy; the poetry was lackluster without exception. Not recommended.

Dear Mr. Henshaw, by Beverly Cleary,

In second grade, Leigh Botts (boy) writes a fanmail letter to Boyd Henshaw, a children's book author, launching a correspondence, a diary, and literary aspirations. From second through sixth grade, Leigh writes to Mr. Henshaw, in stages revealing the unraveling of his family through divorce, and his vulnerability as missing-Dad, wrong-side-of-the-tracks, new kid in school, a kid whose lunches are ransacked daily, yet there ain't no justice. Mr. Henshaw, and more importantly, the act of writing to him, builds Leigh's nascent confidence and coping skills. An effective use of the epistolary form; sympathetic realism that keepts its dignity, and its protagonist's. Recommended.

Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh, 1964

11-year old Harriet M. Welsch, don't forget the "M," craves order in her universe. Her existence is tethered to unalterable constants: a tomato sandwich every day for lunch, cake and milk after school, a notebook ever ready for recording her observations on human nature, and the watchful hawkeye of her nurse, Ole Golly. As spy-cum-authoress in training, she pours her acid wit into her notebooks, but when marriage yanks Ole Golly away, and friends-turned-traitors lay hands on a notebook, Harriet's universe unhinges, and then anything is possible. A thoughful, hilarious, sympathetic, multi-layered narrative with startlingly real characters and troubles; underhandedly offers a wry commentary on excess, privilege and their childhood casualties. Harriet the heroine bursts out of the page and won't soon be forgotten. Most strongly recommended.

Number the Stars, by Lois Lowry, 1989

It's 1943, and 10-year old Annemarie Johansen and her family have lived under the grip of the Nazi occupation of Denmark for two years. She's almost grown used to the soldiers on every corner, the shortages of clothing, butter, coffee, and the silent, secret tension shared by all the adults she knows. But when the Nazis begin rounding up Copenhagen's Jews for "relocation," placing her best friend Ellen Rosen in danger, Annemarie learns firsthand what bravery means. Told with strength, simplicity, and restraint, tonally consistent with the Danish heroism to which it is a tribute. Strongly recommended.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Olive's Ocean, by Kevin Henkes, 2003.

Twelve year-old Martha Boyle never really knew Olive Barstow, but after Olive's death in a bicycle accident, she learns that Olive thought Martha was the nicest girl she knew. Martha takes this knowledge, along with other concerns, to her grandmother Godbee's house on Cape Cod for a family summer vacation. Martha's experiences and emotions are sensitively painted as she contemplates her future, her mortality, her malleable family and aging grandmother, love, and creating a monument to Olive. A lovely and finely-focused book of short, acute chapters and careful honesty. Recommended, though it may hold more aesthetic appeal for adults than most middle-grade readers.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

River Boy, by Tim Bowler, 1997

Jess's grandfather is dying, but determined not to until he returns to his childhood home and finishes one last painting, one he's inexplicably titled "River Boy." Jess, her parents, and Grampa return to the river where he once lived, where Jess encounters a mysterious boy swimmer. Magical realism with a supernatural twist, the story and the language are at times lovely and poignant, but overall, a heavyhanded text that distrusts its readers, emotionally manipulating them with excessive description and sentimentality.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

The Great Gilly Hopkins, by Katherine Paterson, 1987

It takes a particular genius to terrorize an entire county's foster care and social services systems, but 11-year old Galadriel, aka Gilly, Hopkins, is the girl for the job. When she arrives at Mamie Trotter's home, her bag of tricks to manipulate, antagonize, and escape is fully loaded. But all she really wants is for her mother, Courtney Hopkins, to come for her. Gilly is a wonderfully complex and convincing rascal heroine, whose ingenuity is only matched by her longing for home. Strongly recommended, even if the ending made me throw a Gilly-style fit.

Monday, July 31, 2006

My Sister, My Science Report, by Margaret Bechard, 1990

Which is worse? Being assigned a science report on barn owls, or being assigned nerdy Phoenix Guber as a partner? Tess isn't sure, but possibly neither outrage trumps having a teenaged older sister. When Phoenix and Tess decide to ditch barn owls and instead study a teenager in her natural habitat, mixups follow thick and fast, and Tess's scientific observations show her that people are not always what they seem. Recommended.

Beast, by Donna Jo Napoli. 2000.

Persian Prince Orasmyn loathes violence and dreams of love, anticipating his eventual betrothal to a suitable princess. When a ritual Islamic sacrifice goes awry at his hands, he is cursed by a parian, or fairy, and changed into a lion. After years of wandering and struggling to survive as man-within-lion, Orasmyn winds up in France, there to become the supporting actor in a dramatic recasting of "Beauty and the Beast." Orasmyn is a strong protagonist (and a convincing lion); Beast is a thoughtful retelling, at once both visceral and spiritual, and, by all indicators, well-researched. Recommended.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

What I Believe, by Norma Fox Mazer, 2005

Vicky Marnet, middle schooler, aspiring lawyer, and budding poet, writes obsessively about her life, her family, and her father, who lost his executive job two years ago and slid into a deep depression. Poems in free verse and ambitious forms tell how her family sells its posh suburban home and moves into an apartment in the city, where her parents find low-paying jobs, and the depression and money struggles continue. Realistic middle-grade novel-in-verse offering non-sentimentalized hope amidst inner and outer trials; Vicky is a believable teen making believable choices, even if her sophisticated poetic skills seem exalted for her age. Recommended.

Sarah, Plain and Tall, by Patricia MacLaughlan, 1985

Caleb can't remember his Mama, who died the day after he was born, but Anna will never forget her singing voice on prairie evenings. To Anna's surprise, Papa advertises for a new wife, and Sarah Wheaton from Maine writes back. She visits to decide if she'll stay, bringing yellow bonnet, seashells, and a cat. A tender romance unfolds between Sarah, Papa, and the children who desperately hope Sarah will stay, despite the lure of the gray-green sea. A charming story, remarkably short for all its tale and texture, its characters warm and memorable. Strongly recommended.

Hanging on to Max, by Margaret Bechard, 2002

Sam Pettigrew's trying to stay awake in high school, at least enough to graduate, but late nights tending his 11-month old son Max, and squeezing homework and SAT prep between naps and feedings makes it hard to keep his eyes open. Sam is a strong, loving, honorable, and conflicted teen; the novel compassionately follows his affectionate and troubled relationships with his father and his son through blessings and heartbreaks. Uplifting, strongly recommended; bring tissues.

As would be expected with the subject matter, some teen sexuality is present, though neither explicit nor glamorized, and sensitively yet believably handled.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Like Sisters on the Homefront, by Rita Williams-Garcia, 1995

At 14, Gayle's Mama puts a stop to her second pregnancy by dragging Gayle to an abortion clinic, then sending her and her baby Jose "down Souf" to stay with her preacher uncle, Luther, his wife, and their 16-year old daughter Constance, aka "Cookie." Never mind nookie with Troy, her latest beau -- what Gayle misses most from New York are her girlfriends, or "sisters." Against all odds, and despite Gayle's attitude, Gayle finds a place for herself and a family among her "saved" and gospel-loving relations, and she and Cookie both find surprising ways to need and save each other. Strongly recommended.

* Dialogue of an explicit sexual nature is present, though no scenes, and the novel works to discourage teen sexuality.

On My Honor, by Marion Dane Bauer, 1986

Joel doesn't want to ride to the state park to climb the Starved Rock bluffs with his friend Tony -- it's too far, too dangerous, too steep. But Tony teases, Joel doesn't want to look weak, and Joel's father unexpectedly gives permission, so Joel feels he has no choice. Then Tony changes his plans and suggests a swim in the river. The danger and consequences that follow these choices place Joel in a heart-wrenching position and reluctance, anger, grief, and guilt. A short and somber realistic middle-grade cautionary tale.

A Step from Heaven, by An Na, 2001

Heaven is in the sky, and Young Ju and her parents emigrate from Korea to America by airplane, so, Young Ju concludes, America must be heaven! But not even California, nor the birth of a son, can soften her father's abusive anger and drinking. Young Ju's struggles at school and at home are poetically depicted, elegantly showing both the plight of immigrants and the terror of domestic abuse. Uplifting in both its lyrical grace and in the triumphs it affords brave Young Ju; strongly recommended.

Locomotion, by Jacqueline Woodson, 2003

Lonnie C. Motion, aka "Locomotion," has a teacher who makes him write poetry, a foster mother who tells him to "shush," and a little sister who tells him to read the Bible so they can be together again, even though her adoptive parents don't trust Lonnie. He also has memories too painful to carry of the night their parents died in a fire. Written mostly in free verse poetry, with a few other forms mixed in, Lonnie's poetic voice is real and his observations are poignant. A hopeful and graceful read. Recommended.

Monday, July 03, 2006

The Rag and Bone Shop, by Robert Cormier, 2001

12-year old Jason Dorrant is the last known person to have seen 7-year old Alicia Bartlett alive. Tensions run high in their Central Massachusetts town; a killer is loose, and a senator demands answers. Prosecuters summon Trent, an interrogational specialist famous for extracting confessions, and they stage a ruse to lure Jason into Trent's confidence. Tense, psychologically acute and incisive, skillfully paced and woven, as Cormier's novels are, though I question the believability and hopelessness of its ambiguous ending. An excellent illustration of the abuses possible in an unscrupulous criminal justice system. Still, for me, a dark and unpleasant read, one which, as the Yeats poem from which it gains its title suggests, pulls readers down into "the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart."

Because of Winn-Dixie, by Kate di Camillo, 2000 *audio

India Opal Buloni and her father, the preacher, have just moved to Naomi, Florida, where her father now pastors the Open Arms Baptist Church. Opal has no friends and no memories of her mother, but everything changes when she rescues a mangy, sneezing, smiling mutt from the Winn-Dixie grocery store. Because of Winn-Dixie (the dog), Opal makes friends with Miss Frannie Block, the librarian; Gloria Dump, possibly a witch; pinched-face Amanda Wilkinson; irritating Dunlap and Stevie Dooberry; finger-sucking Sweetie Pie Thomas; and guitar-picking ex-con Otis. Warm yet real, as Southern as lemonade in the shade, and as gracious. Recommended.

(My apologies for possible name misspellings; unavoidable with audiobooks.)

Monday, June 26, 2006

Esperanza Rising, by Pam Munoz Ryan, 2000

In 1930, on the eve of Esperanza's thirteenth birthday, tragedy strikes her family when her father is ambushed and murdered by bandits while mending the fences around his large, prosperous Rancho de las Rosas in Mexico. Papa's stepbrothers hold their assets, and in months Esperanza and her mother flee to the San Joaquin Valley in California, assisted by their former servants, to join the campesinos and pick fruits and vegetables year-round. Esperanza's growth to maturity and compassion prevents this riches-to-rags story from feeling tragic, and the graceful and loving hand that wrote this tribute to her own grandmother skillfully employed the fruits and vegetables harvested by the campesinos to add fragrance and texture to an already well-ripened story. Strongly recommended.

Dealing with Dragons, by Patricia Wrede, 1990 *audio

Cimorene's impatience with propriety prompts a career change from betrothed princess to dragon's princess, when she volunteers to be the servant of the dragon Kazul. In a fractured fairy-tale world that playfully jumbles fairy tale motifs, Cimorene deals not only with politically plotting dragons, but sinister wizards, matrimony-minded princesses, and doggedly rescuing knights. Dragons that feel like kittens, characters and dialogue that fall flat, a meandering and indecisive plot, and a lack of personal risks or emotional stakes for the main character obscured the pleasure that the novel's premise suggested. Not recommended.

*I could have been influenced by the poorly-acted full-cast narration of the audio version, which I found insufferable -- though in its defense, my 8-year old enjoyed it. In preparing my annotation I tried hard to focus on the narrative itself and not the narration, but perhaps it biased me.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Ida B, and Her Plans to Maximize Fun, Avoid Disaster, and (Possibly) Save the World, by Katherine Hannigan, 2004 *audio

Ida B. Applewood talks to the trees in her apple orchard, the brook, and the bare tree on the top of her mountain -- and they, in their unique voices, talk back. She loves her homeschooled life on the farm, her Mama and Daddy, her slobbering dog Rufus and smug cat Lulu, and incessantly making plans. Her plans go awry when Mama's cancer forces Daddy to sell part of the apple orchard, and forces Ida B to return to public school at the start of fourth grade. Ida B's character rings true thoughout with honest emotions and sharp self-awareness, a wild imagination, clever wit, and a talent for simile. A graceful and poignant narrative from a first-time novelist; strongly recommended.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, by Avi, 1990 *audio

At 13, after finishing her year at a British school for "better girls," Charlotte embarks from Liverpool, white gloves in tow, on the brig "Seahawk" to return to her parents in Providence, RI. Her chaperones never appear, and so, in 1832, Charlotte finds herself in the scandalous position of solitary female on a ship sailed by as nefarious-looking a bunch of scalawags as literature has yet offered us, with a black-hearted captain for good measure. Charlotte's ensuing adventures prove that even better girls can have high adventures upon the rolling seas, and teach her, in natural and convincing ways, to question the class, gender, and race assumptions upon which her privileges as a "better girl" rest. Full of shivering timbers and jibbing the mainsail, nautical fun and perilous danger. Strongly recommended.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Little Lord Fauntleroy, by Frances Hodgson Burnett, 1886

Cedric Erroll is a well-loved fatherless American boy with a sweet widowed mother and an irresistable head of curly golden hair. Armed with these assets, the world is his to conquer with kindness, and what more straightforward route could there be than to discover that he is heir to England's most wealthy earldom? Cedric cum Fauntleroy travels to England and melts his crusty grandfather's heart with his lovelocks and lordly legs. All proceeds smoothly until another claimant to the earldom appears...

Though LLF enjoyed considerable popularity in its day, and for a generation afterwards, Secret Garden and Little Princess have kept Burnett alive in children's literature, and LLF has been all but forgotten. For modern readers, there are some reasons why: it's hopelessly sentimental; characters are flat; it's a class monologue that constantly reinforces the innate worthiness of the aristocracy to rule and the eagerness of the lower classes to be ruled; and it persistently equates beauty with virtue. If you can set all that aside, LLF has an undeniable sweetness, and as an almost-rags to riches story mixed with sensationalism, it's fun. I'm sure I would have devoured this as a child; as an adult it's a bit harder to swallow, but taking it for what it is, good fodder for a nostalgia binge, and so sentimental as to be harmless for young readers.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Recommended books from Fall '05 semester

Frindle by Andrew Clements (middle school)
Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken (first in a long series, fun)
Skellig by David Almond
Whales on Stilts by M.T. Anderson
Sabriel by Garth Nix (interesting fantasy, first in a trilogy, great audio by Tim Curry)
Thirsty by M.T. Anderson. (darkly funny vampire book)
Shiva’s Fire by Suzanne Fisher Staples.
The Life and Death of Adolf Hitler by James Cross Giblin. (great YA biography)
Kalpana’s Dream by Judith Clarke
Lucie Babbidge’s House by Sylvia Cassedy
Kira Kira by Cynthia Kadohata
A Wreath for Emmett Till by Marilyn Nelson (if you like poetry)
Monster by Walter Dean Myers (a bit unsettling, provocative and worth the read)

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Just Juice, by Karen Hesse, 1998

Juice Faulstich hasn't been to school in a while, despite the truant officer's best efforts, because she can't get reading right and she hates feeling stupid. Instead she spends her time walking with Pa, who's been out of work for a while and needs comforting. Food and money are lean at the Faulstich home, though Ma isn't, what with the baby on the way, and gestational diabetes this time around. A spare and brief realistic story of renewing hope where there was little to be found. The novel offers its unromanticized heroine a chance at heroism, without Pollyanna-izing the solution to her family's problems. Recommended.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Alice, I Think, by Susan Juby, 2003 *audio

Following an unfortunate misunderstanding over her Hobbit costume worn to first grade, Alice is home-schooled for ten years by her hippie mom and near-derelict, romance-novel-writing wannabe dad. She has a knack for forcing therapists at the Teens in Transition club into early retirement. She records in her diary her progress toward achieving her Life Goals, which include choosing a vocation ("cultural critic"), reading the Lord of the Rings trilogy, achieving a new look, and having some boy-girl interaction. Her voice, her observations on the parade of nut-jobs that drift through her house and life, and her escapades are wry, dark, and hilarious. Considered as a book for young people, it feels like a romp without restraint through attempts at irresponsibility. A portion of the ending threw me out of the text -- out of character, I thought. Re: recommendations: If you're a grownup in the mood for an irreverent laugh at everyone, I recommend it. If you're in my youth Sunday School class, I absolutely do NOT recommend it. Otherwise, you're on your own. Enjoy.

Getting Near to Baby, by Audrey Couloumbis, 2000

With remarkable pacing, this novel begins and ends in a single day spent on a rooftop by Willa Jo and Little Sister, who have come to stay with Aunt Patty and Uncle Hobart while their mother copes with her grief at the loss of Baby. But Willa Jo and Little Sister have grief of their own to bear, none of which is lightened by Aunt Patty's determined and overbearing efforts to raise them her own way. Perhaps I've read too many coming-to-terms-with-grief novels lately, but I cried anyway. Willa Jo, Uncle Hobart, and Aunt Patty are memorable, well-rounded characters (Patty especially ;). Recommended.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

The Fire-Eaters, by David Almond, 2004

World War II is a recent memory for Bobby Burns' father, a British veteran who fought in Burma, and he believes mankind would never again be so stupid as to start another world war. 13-year old Bobby, living in Keely Bay, a coal town in northern England, in 1962, isn't so sure as he sees Kennedy and Kruschev on the nightly news, and watches the Bay of Pigs crisis unfold. McNulty, a shellshocked Burma veteran turned escapologist and fire-breather that Bobby meets on a daytrip to Newcastle puts a living human face on some of war's costs, while Bobby's new friend Daniel shows what to fight for at an abusive parochial school. Poignant and hopeful, lovely in its telling, strongly recommended.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

The Graduation of Jake Moon, by Barbara Park, 2002

Skelly, Jake’s grandfather, raised him, along with his mother, even signing up to be his first grade classroom mom. By the time Jake’s in middle school, Skelly has Alzheimer’s disease; by the time Jake graduates from middle school, his grandfather’s dementia has turned his entire family upside-down. Funny and thoughtful, the text is a worthwhile read, even if a few plot weaknesses disrupt the flow. Jake is a likeably imperfect, often immature character, which makes his growth through the text more meaningful. The text stops short of resolving some of the questions it raises about the impact of dementia on families – and by doing so may seem to sentimentalize and minimize those concerns. Still, recommended.

A Parcel of Patterns, by Jill Paton Walsh, 1983

Mall Percival is a child of Eyam, a small village in Derbyshire, now grown to adulthood in 1665 and set to marry Thomas, a shepherd and her childhood sweetheart. An errant package of dressmaking patterns sent from London to Eyam infects the village tailor with the plague, launching a year of terror in which the town is almost decimated by disease, and places itself under town-wide quarantine. Based upon a true history of the actual village of Eyam, though using fictional main characters, this is a heartbreaking and lovely book, written as Mall’s diary account of Eyam’s sorrows. Recommended for historical fiction fans.

The Midwife’s Apprentice, by Karen Cushman, 1996 *audio

Brat, sometimes called Beetle, short for Dungbeetle, has neither family, home, nor name, but wanders from town to town in medieval England, begging for food and work, finding shelter and warmth in moldering dungheaps. Almost by accident she becomes the servant and assistant to Jane Sharpe, the village midwife, and herb by herb and birth by birth, she builds for herself an identity and a place. She chooses for herself the name “Alyce.” Rich characterization, setting, and humor successfully transport readers to the past, however, I found the culmination of Alyce’s quest for identity, place, and worth puzzling and underwhelming. I’m surprised it won the 1996 Newbery.

Shiloh, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, 1992 *audio

Right and wrong get fuzzy (and wiggly) for 11-year old Marty Preston when he meets Shiloh, a mistreated beagle pup who clearly prefers Marty over his abusive owner, Judd Travers. Marty is a wonderfully real character from a loving though impoverished home in rural West Virginia. A classic boy-and-dog tale, pitting Marty against a gristly moral dilemma which he tackles with true grit. Recommended.

Walk Two Moons, by Sharon Creech, 1994

Salamanca Tree Hiddle sets out with her grandparents on a summer roadtrip to Lewiston, Idaho, to see her mother who went there a year ago and didn’t come back. Along the way Sal tells the story of her friend Phoebe Winterbottom, whose mother also left her family. Middle-grade realism; funny, tender, sad, hopeful; entirely worthwhile. Strongly recommended.

Tending to Grace, by Kimberly Newton Fusco, 2004

Cornelia’s stuttering makes those around her look away, including her mother, who ultimately fades away from mothering her ninth-grade daughter. When the mother and her boyfriend light out for Vegas, they leave Corny with her great-aunt Agatha in a tumbledown New England farmhouse, and neither of the unwilling new roommates seems suited to the other. Young adult realism poetically and sensitively written; Cornelia’s voice on the page is as true as her spoken voice is halting. Strongly recommended.

The Giver, by Lois Lowry, 1993

Instead of being assigned to his future vocation, Jonas is selected, at his Ceremony of Twelve, to be his community’s next Receiver of Memory. Tutored by the Giver, he tastes sadness, war, happiness, love, even color, until his eyes are opened to the repressive inhumanity of his world, where “sameness” and “precise language” are valued over variety and emotion, and where deviance or weakness results in “release.” A compelling dystopic illustration of the worth and price of personal freedoms. Strongly recommended.

Keeper of the Isis Light, Monica Hughes, 1984

For longer than she can remember, Olwen has lived on the hot and arid Planet Isis, as keeper of its interplanetary lighthouse and observation station. With only her Guardian for company, she has never seen herself in a mirror, or through another’s eyes, until a spaceship of colonists from overcrowded Earth arrives. A futuristic science fiction approach to coming-of-age literature that explores tolerance and self-acceptance, albeit in a dated and two-dimensional manner.

Enchantress from the Stars, by Sylvia Louise Engdahl, 1970

A dragon threatens Goeryn’s village, and none who venture to slay it return; Medical Officer Jarel regrets joining the colonizing expedition to Andrecia, where Imperial fire-breathing machinery devours the virgin landscape; Federation Field Agent-to-be Elana stows away on a mission to save the planet Andrecia from colonization. Heroes from different worlds and phases of societal evolution come together on pristine Andrecia in an ambitious braiding of narrative styles, viewpoints, and philosophies. A modern retelling of “The Fairy Queen” enabled by futuristic science fantasy, and an argument for ethics, and enlightened faith, to restrain and direct mankind’s march toward progress.

The Owl Service, by Alan Garner, 1967

Gwyn and his mother came to work as servants; Alison and her stepbrother Roger came for a summer holiday to Alison’s Welsh estate. When Gwyn and Alison discover a dish service covered in a floral pattern that, when carefully traced, shapes owls, the three teens are swept into replaying ancient Welsh myth. With extraordinary characterization and storytelling relying almost wholly on dialogue and inner monologue, the text moves with swift intensity. Mythical and mystical, with the suspense of mystery and the tumult of epic, as well as the psychological complexity of superb realism. Strongly recommended, for multiple readings.

Olivia Kidney, by Ellen Potter, 2003

Olivia Kidney lives in a New York City apartment building full of colorful characters with impossible stories: a princess in a glass apartment; a lizard-charmer and her companion, a murderous pirate; a spiritualist medium who loves new shoes; and a lonely ghost. Locked out of her apartment, she meets her crazy neighbors while searching for her father, the building super, and for someone who can help her find her brother, Christopher, who is dead. Marvelous absurdity and cleverly interlaced stories overlay Olivia’s loneliness; it’s never clear what’s actually real. Recommended.

Elsewhere, by Gabrielle Zevin, 2005

Liz wakes up in a cabin bunk on a cruise ship, the SS Nile, only to reluctantly realize she’s there because she’s dead. She arrives in Elsewhere, a place where dead souls live remarkably full lives, holding jobs, having holidays, pets and even romances while aging backwards in anticipation of a return trip to the land of the living. Thoughtful and funny, the parallel world of Elsewhere is entirely original yet oddly believable, though the text makes a few misfires, and some may find a voyeuristic aspect unsettling.

Witch Week, by Diana Wynne Jones, 1982

Class 6B of Larwood House, a school for witch-orphans and other problem children, is obsessed with discovering which of its students is secretly a witch. If caught, witches are burned to death; if not caught, young witches cause mayhem so thick that only Chrestomanci, a dapper and astute enchanter from a parallel world, can sort it out. A boarding-school take on witch fantasy, Witch Week is a skillful concoction of dark humor, danger, magic, and school-age nastiness with a strong ending. Highly recommended.

The Devil’s Arithmetic, by Jane Yolen, 1988

Hannah’s grandfather survived the Holocaust, and she wishes he’d stop carrying on about it. During a family Seder dinner, she is transported to a Jewish settlement in Poland during World War II, hours before that shtetl is conducted to a Nazi concentration camp. A successful use of time travel brings the lessons of the Holocaust to modern readers, convincingly depicting the courage and loyalty found in the death camps, as well as the suffering endured and lives devoured. Serious and sobering in theme and content; strongly recommended for readers ready for such mature subjects.

The Amulet of Samarkand, by Jonathan Stroud, 2003

Apprentice magician Nathaniel shouldn’t know how to command fourth-level demons, yet he summons Bartimaeus, a rogue djinni of ancient memory and contemporary wit. Bartimaeus steals a powerful amulet from an unscrupulous magician, and boy and djinni thwart his scheme to annihilate the British government. An interesting combination of comical hijinks and malevolent danger set in modern, if magical, London, Nathaniel’s “quest” is more a vendetta than a journey. Still, its weight, balanced against Bartimaeus’ engaging humor, raise both the story’s stakes and the reader’s enjoyment. Neither epic nor “high,” though strongly recommended.

The Mouse and His Child, by Russell Hoban, 1967

On Christmas Eve a tramp observes wind-ups in a toy store window: a seal, an elephant, and a mouse dancing with his child. The tramp sets in motion a dangerous adventure for the mice, which can only move when wound by others, yet manage to evade a vengeful rat, chop down a tree as pawns of a muskrat, and conquer the rats with the help of a prophetic frog. An unusual toy story in its lack of children, its allusions to 1960’s intellectual movements, and its darkly violent humor. More suited to adults than children.

The Perilous Gard, by Elizabeth Marie Pope, 1974

When rational-minded Kate Sutton is unjustly banished to Sir Geoffrey Heron’s remote northern castle by Mary, Queen of Scots, she finds that old heathen myths and ballads are more than superstition. Kate’s determination unearths a nightmarish ancient tradition that entraps Sir Geoffrey’s daughter and younger brother. A satisfying foray into history as well as the subterranean world of the fairy-folk, complete with mystery, danger, ritual, and well-drawn romance. Kate is a convincing heroine whose weaknesses and strengths equip her to withstand a magic both mythic and psychological. – Julianna Berry

Babe, the Gallant Pig, by Dick King-Smith, 1983

Farmer Hoggett keeps sheep, not pigs, but he knows a smart pig when he sees one, and can guess its weight, which is how Babe comes to the Hoggett farm, where Fly, a maternal collie, teaches him to herd sheep. Babe earns the sheep’s trust with kindness, rescues them, and gives Farmer Hoggett the proudest moment in his quiet life. Distinctive dialogue brings each character into focus in this talking animal fantasy. An endearing novel of few words, like its human hero, and warm heart, like its porcine one. The basis for the movie "Babe."

Inkheart, by Cornelia Funke, 2003

The arrival of flame-eating, scar-faced Dustfinger and his horned marten sends 12-year old Meggie and her father, Mo, on a secret flight to safety at Meggie’s book-collecting great aunt’s home in Italy. Danger follows, and Meggie learns that the reason her father never reads aloud holds the key to her mother’s absence, and the danger they face from sinister Capricorn, a murderous villain who might have stepped out of legend. Danger, suspense, and love-to-hate villains suffuse this magical adventure, offsetting a prolonged and somewhat incomplete resolution, which invites a sequel.