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.)