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.