Bud, Not Buddy, by Christopher Paul Curtis

Bud, Not Buddy

When Bud is sent from the orphanage into yet another abusive host family, he has finally had enough. He runs away with only the clothes on his back and his battered suitcase, using a few small clues to search for the father he has never known. Bud hikes and hitches his way from Flint to Grand Rapids, meeting colorful characters and having a few adventures along the way. Bud eventually finds the man he believes to be his father, band-leader Curtis E. Calloway, who is cranky and distrustful of Bud. While Calloway does not turn out to be Bud’s real father, he finds a home with Calloway and his traveling band, and learns about his real family in the process.

Curtis’ evocation of African-American lives in Depression-era Michigan is masterful, and Bud’s narration is funny and frank. This is definitely a middle grade novel, with a ten year old main character. However, Bud’s wise-beyond-his-years narrative voice may win over some older readers, especially readers who are interested in this period of history or who enjoy historical fiction. Bud’s story and his voice are both affecting, as demonstrated by the book’s status as both a Newbery and a Coretta Scott King Award winner.

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Saving Francesca, by Melina Marchetta

Saving Francesca

Francesca is one of 30 girls attending St. Sebastian’s Academy, which is accepting girls for the very first time this year. The teachers and the student body have not been exactly accommodating of the girls, and Francesca makes it to school every day only from the motivation of her mother Mia, who is extremely optimistic, lively, and often annoying. Until one day, Mia won’t get out of bed. Mia was the center of the whole family, and suddenly Francesca, her father, and her little brother Luca must struggle to keep daily life going. As Francesca slowly adjusts to her new surroundings at school, makes friends with the other girls, and begins to fall for the infuriating Will Trombal, she must also learn to live life without the constant guidance of her mother and her old, popular friends. And finally, Francesca needs to discover the root of her mother’s sudden depression, and learn what she can do to help Mia return to her life.

I imagine that well written, light-hearted novels dealing with depression are few and far between, but this title certainly fits the bill. Francesca is a heartbreakingly real character, both in her humorous reactions to everyday life and in her emotional reactions to her mother’s illness. Life and relationships are allowed to be complicated in Marchetta’s book, and Francesca deals with these complications in ways that many teens will be able to relate to.

Son of the Mob, by Gordon Korman

Son of the Mob

Vince Luca’s father’s job has always caused trouble for Vince’s dating life. There was the time his date found an unconscious guy tied up in the trunk of his car, and he gets into trouble every time a girl wants to come home to meet his family. Life’s tough when your dad is the head of the New York mafia. When he meets Kendra, Vince finally thinks he’s found someone who’s worth all the trouble. When he finds out that her dad is in the FBI, he gets a little bit worried. When he finds out that her dad is investigating his dad, life gets really, really complicated.

The classic Romeo and Juliet romantic story is satisfying, but the really engaging part of this book is Vince’s moral struggle with his role as the child of a mob boss. In his attempts to help a few men who owe his father money, Vince finds himself more and more entangled in the family business, which he has always avoided. In the end, Vince has to make a choice about his own future, but he also has to protect his family from the FBI investigation. Vince’s choices provide a moral core for a very funny book. It is this story, and not the trite love interest, that makes Korman’s book unexpectedly satisfying.

Before We Were Free, by Isabel Alvarez

Before We Were Free

Anita de la Torre is just trying to navigate the confusing world of school and first crushes. But life is more complicated than that, because Anita lives in the Dominican Republic in the early 1960s under the dictator Trujillo. People are disappearing, the Secret Police are everywhere, and many of Anita’s friends and family have already evacuated to the United States. But Anita and her family stay behind, and Anita eventually learns that her father, her uncle, and their friends are plotting a revolution. Day to day life is tense, and everything in Anita’s life changes suddenly and drastically on the day that Trujillo’s body is discovered by the secret police in the trunk of her father’s car. But the intended revolution is unsuccessful, and when her dad and her uncle are taken away by the Secret Police, Anita and her mother must go into hiding and eventually escape to the US.

Anita’s story is moving, and would make a good introduction to the terrors of this and other South American dictatorships from the recent past. And in fact, the story barely feels like it is set in the past – aside from a few references to poodle skirts the novel feels modern, which will make it accessible to more teens. Anita’s story is not only about politics and revolution, but is also a very tender coming-of-age story. Alvarez deals with all of these issues with a light touch, filtering the horror of the dictatorship through Anita’s young eyes. Anita is only twelve years old, but this book has definitely been marketed to a YA audience, from the beautiful teenage girl on the cover to the awards for YA literature. Readers will see Anita mature as she begins to understand the true nature of life in her country.

Airborn, by Kenneth Oppel

Airborn

Matt Cruse lives a life he loves, sailing through the air as a cabin boy on the Airship Aurora and hoping to one day captain a great Airship. When Kate, a headstrong and very rich young passenger, confides in him that she is searching for an undiscovered race of flying creatures that were discovered by her uncle shortly before his death, Matt is swept up in her search. It is only when a pirate attack leaves the Aurora stranded on an island that they finally find what they are looking for.

Oppel’s novel is a richly detailed, rollicking adventure set in a Victorian fantasy world. Matt’s narration is fresh and lively, and his passion for flying gives the novel a joyful feel. With exploration, flight, romance, piracy, adventure, shipwrecks, a realistically drawn fantasy world, a rich plot, and compelling characters, there is a lot to love about this book. While the plot is fun and adventurous, it is Matt’s quietly competent passion and Kate’s strong will and curiosity that carry the novel. The quick pace of the plot and Matt’s enthusiastic narration make Airborn’s 500 pages fly by. I look forward to reading the sequel.

A Northern Light, by Jennifer Donnelly

northernlight

Mattie Gokey is desperate to earn enough money to escape her tiny North Woods town and attend college in New York. Her dream is to be a writer, but in reality she is caring for her younger sisters and helping her father run the family farm. When she goes off to work at a popular summer resort camp to earn money for a new mule, Molly meets a young couple, and Grace, the young lady, gives Mattie a bundle of letters to burn. However, before Mattie gets around to burning the letters, Grace Brown turns up drowned in a boating accident on the lake, and her boyfriend is no where to be found. Reading the letters, Mattie discovers that Grace was murdered. Grace’s story, combined with Mattie’s own blossoming relationship with a local farmboy, make Mattie question whether relationships are harmful to women.

Donnelly’s narrative is complex and nonlinear, shifting seamlessly from Mattie’s life on the farm to her life at the hotel in the wake of Grace Brown’s murder. The parallel narratives of Grace Brown’s doomed relationship, Mattie’s confusing relationship with Royal, and the several other romantic relationships that are scattered through the text are skillfully woven, and the book is beautifully written. I did feel a little bit beat over the head by the “marriage is bad for women!” message of the book. While choosing not to pursue a relationship with Royal is part of Mattie’s journey, and the relationships of Grace Brown, Mattie’s teacher, and other women are illuminating to that journey, the exploration of this theme felt very one-sided.

The book was based on an actual 1906 murder, which was also explored in Theodore Dreiser’s novel An American Tragedy.

Finding Lubchenko, by Michael Simmons

lubchenko.jpg

When Evan’s millionaire dad is suddenly arrested for murder, and Evan learns that the evidence that could acquit his father is hidden in his best friend’s garage, he is left with a dilemma. Leave his father to rot in jail, or admit that he has been stealing office equipment from his dad’s company and selling it on eBay? Complicating things is Evan’s stormy relationship with his father, a penny-pinching disciplinarian. Eventually, Evan lights on a kind of solution – using the evidence on the stolen laptop to start his own investigation. With his dad’s credit card and his two best friends in tow, Evan flies off to Paris and finds himself in the middle of international intrigue, danger, mystery, and a possible bioterrorism plot.

While the book’s plot is fast-paced and fun, the true delight in reading Finding Lubchenko is Evan’s narrative voice. Yes, Evan is a sarcastic, whiny, self-involved narrator, but he is also uproariously funny. Refreshingly, Evan does not grow up a whole lot of the course of the novel. In keeping with the rest of Simmons’ funny, irreverent book, there is no tearful reunion with his father, and Evan is still the same aggravating teenager at the book’s end.