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.