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.