Kid vs. Squid by Greg van Eekhout

This is a book with a lot to live up to. First off, it’s called Kid Vs. Squid.  Is it possible to come up with an awesomer title for a middle grade book?  I’ve tried, and until I’m presented with evidence to the contrary I’m going to assume that this is the awesomest middle grade title of all time.  After considering the title, we move on to the cover.  A young man who looks like he probably has his own show on the Disney Channel leans nonchalantly on a weapon while a giant squid looms in the background giving him the evil eye.  Again, this is a cover with an awesome-factor that is almost off the charts.  So, the big question: can a book possibly live up to all this awesome-ness?

I’m glad to say that somehow this book does it.  Thatcher is spending his summer in Las Huesas, California with his great-uncle.  A summer without parents in a beach town sounds pretty good – until you meet the great-uncle and see the beach town.  Las Huesas is strangely deserted, and Uncle Griswald has a bad habit of forgetting about basic things like food and lives inside Professor Griswald’s Museum of the Strange and Curious – which is even creepier and mustier than it sounds. Phone and internet don’t seem to work in Las Huesas, so the only contact Thatcher has with the outside world is postcards from his parents that say things like “Dear Thatcher, We think we’ve found a great deal on polymer injection molds! Love and huggies.” (pg. 12, quotes taken from ARC and are subject to change.)  Worst of all, the only kids around are a couple of guys on bikes who keep muttering about “flotsam” and look a little bit like squid.  Things take a turn for the exciting when Thatcher catches a burglar in the act of stealing the museum’s prize What-Is-It.  Giving chase, Thatcher finds himself in the middle of the town’s mystery, and he has to battle a curse-happy witch and some seriously nasty sea creatures.  Along the way Thatcher joins forces with Shoal, a princess of the Lost City of Atlantis, and Trudy, who is a hysterical cross between Nancy Drew and Batman.

It all sounds pretty ridiculous.  And it is pretty ridiculous – but the tone is somewhere in between charging into this goofy story with no holds barred and slyly self-aware, and somehow van Eekhout hits that sweet spot that lets you laugh at how silly the story is and genuinely care about what happens at the same time.  And the silliness really is laugh-out-loud funny.  Thatcher, as the narrator, is definitely central to making the tone of this book work.  He is a naturally funny guy, and the kind of person who just starts running his mouth when he gets confused or scared.  As he puts it,

I respond to bullies and teachers with funny comments, sharp little put-downs, and sometimes if my victim shows signs of weakness, I can’t stop myself.  My words are like a cheetah taking down a gazelle by the throat. (pg. 8.)

But Thatcher, a man of words, is tossed into situation after situation where he has to step outside of his comfort zone and take action.  Especially since his words get him into trouble as often as they get him out of it – as it turns out, talking back to a witch is not the best of ideas.  Luckily he has the delightful Trudy to back him up, and to pull a never-ending number of supplies and gadgets out of her backpack.  Trudy is a force of nature, and it’s her enthusiasm that convinces Thatcher to ditch his usual habit of commenting from the sidelines.

The pace of this book is quick, especially as it gets to the climax.  In the last few chapters the action gets a little bit too frantic – the book is at it’s best when Thatcher’s voice and wry sense of humor can really shine through.  But the fast pace and constant action will pull readers along, making this a great choice for reluctant readers.  Between the great action, the sense of humor, and the mythology of the lost City of Atlantis, I would definitely hand this to my younger Percy Jackson fans.

Greg van Eekhout on the web

Reviewed from ARC provided by publisher at ALA Midwinter.

Speed Reviewing!

I get so caught-up writing  in-depth reviews that I end up ignoring most of the books I read here on the ol’ blog.  And that’s a shame.  I’m going to start trying to do roundups of brief reviews every couple of weeks.  We’ll see how it goes!

Living Hell by Catherine Jinks – Take the goriest sci-fi flick you’ve ever seen and combine it with The Magic Schoolbus Travels Inside the Human Body. That’s this book.  Awesome.  Also, take a peek at that cover: tentacles and a kid with a katana!  Yowza!  (Review copy provided by publisher at ALA Midwinter.)

The Extraordinary Secrets of April, May, and June by Robin Benway – You’ve read those books where a couple of sisters suddenly get superpowers, right?  This one is different.  This is what would actually happen.  Distinctive characters with great voices, and a story that brings both the funny and the emotion.  Robin Benway is pretty quickly becoming one of my YA favorites. (Review copy provided by publisher at ALA Midwinter.)

Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan – Took me longer to warm up to Levithan’s Will Grayson, but I think that may have been intentional.  By half way through, I was in love with almost every character.  Tiny Cooper is a delight.  Ending didn’t quite work for me, but it’s a small quibble with this amazing book. (Review copy provided by publisher at ALA Midwinter.)

Shakespeare Bats Cleanup by Ron Koertge – Baseball and poetry squashed together – it’s like he wrote it just for me!  I was surprised by how moving I found this one.  Really great, funny voice – I don’t see enough of these good ones for the teen boys on the younger side.

The Red Umbrella by Christina Gonzalez – I was excited about this one, especially after really enjoying The Firefly Letters, but it never grabbed me – this was particularly true of the later parts of the story that take place in Nebraska.  I liked Lucia’s growth arc, but I didn’t quite believe it.  Great story that didn’t have the depth I wanted from it. (Review copy provided by publisher at ALA Midwinter.)

Skim by Mariko Tamaki – This young lady was heartbreakingly real.  Loved the art in this one – the best graphic novel I’ve read in a while.

The Annotated Cat: Under the Hats of Dr. Seuss and His Cats by Philip Nel – Wow wow wow!  So much I didn’t know here.  Sometimes it’s a bit much, and sometimes the connection to the text is pretty tenuous, but lots of cool stuff.  Like this list of things Dr. Seuss thought were funny to children: “sounds, surprise, grotesque/incongruous, falling down (the mighty falling), absurdity, horseplay.”  The Mighty Falling!  That’s my band name, right there.

My Life with the Lincolns by Gayle Brandeis – Cute story of a girl who thinks her family are the Lincolns reincarnated, with a nice civil rights angle.  But the author tried to stuff too much into the historical setting, and it all fell a little bit flat. (Review copy provided by publisher at ALA Midwinter.)

Meanwhile: Pick Any Path by Jason Shiga – This is going to be a hit with my library kids, but as someone who is a completist by nature I found it totally exhausting.  It is IMPOSSIBLE to follow every storyline, and I get seriously frustrated when I can’t do that.  Not for me, but does what it does well. (Review copy provided by publisher at ALA Midwinter.)

Notes From No Man’s Land: American Essays by Eula Biss – These essays pack a punch, particularly the first one that starts as a straightforward essay about telephone poles – until you hit a list of black men who were lynched off of telephone poles.  It’s like hitting a wall.  I think it’s really hard for most white people to look at their own life through the lens of racism in America, and most, quite frankly, choose not to.  To make it public like this – Ms. Biss is a brave woman and a wonderful writer.

All Unquiet Things by Anna Jarzab – Much more intense than I expected it to be!  This looked like it was going to be a generic spoiled-rich-kid mystery, and I’m glad I gave it a chance instead of writing it off.  (Review copy provided by publisher at ALA Midwinter.)

Ashley Bryan: Words to My Life’s Song by Ashley Bryan – I had a lot of love for Ashley Bryan even before reading this beautiful autobiography.  This man is a treasure, as is this book.  Hard not to feel inspired to make art after finishing this.

This World We Live In by Susan Beth Pfeffer – Great end to this trilogy.  I loved the perspective that Miranda gains from meeting Alex.  These books always make me feel very, very lucky! (Review copy provided by publisher at ALA Midwinter.)

Ok, that was actually really fun – I might even do another one of these soon to catch up on more stuff I’ve read since Midwinter.  I’m skipping the ones that I plan to review at length – more on those soon!

After Gandhi: One Hundred Year of Nonviolent Resistance by Anne Sibley O’Brien and and Perry Edmond O’Brien

After Gandhi: One Hundred Years of Nonviolent Resistance overviews modern nonviolent movements by looking at a handful of practitioners who have brought about change using nonviolent resistance. The first and longest chapter, on Gandhi’s importance in South Africa and later in India, establishes the methods and ideas that will bridge each of the varied movements that are presented in the book.  From there, brief chapters take the reader on a tour of resistance movement across the globe, from Burma to Kenya, China to Argentina, Australia to the United States.

Each of the short chapters begin by establishing the setting, using a charcoal drawing and the year in boldtype, and following that drawing with a few paragraphs of text that put the reader into the middle of that scene.  While a few of the drawings were a little bit too abstract to really place the reader into the scene, the most effective drawings were a vivid introduction to a different place and time.  The black and white image of an armed soldier running toward an unmoving monk in Vietnam or an angry mob standing off with a small group of protesters in Australia make the conflict that is laid out in the text feel more immediate.

Using these drawings to set the scene is one part of what, on the whole, is a stunning job of designing this book.  Every detail has clearly been thought out, from the heft of the paper to the beautiful typefaces.  Chapters are bookended with the large, often chaotic scenes at the beginning, and lovely calm portraits of the subject at the end.  The text is framed within large swaths of white space, making me think of books designed by William Morris.  And beyond focusing the reader on the text and allowing space for their thoughts to wander while still on the page, the white space also sets off the wonderful quotes that slash across the pages in a beautiful block print, framed in red.  They’re so pretty that I kind of want to get one as a tattoo.  This books is, without question, a joy to look at.  I would have loved to have a note on the design included – if nothing else, so I could know what typefaces were used!

Much of the time it is also a joy to read.  I was especially impressed by the choice of subjects, which covers a wide variety of people and places, and is careful to include women and people of many different ethnic and racial backgrounds.  The authors also do an excellent job of mixing the people who we expect to see in a book like this one – Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, Rosa Parks – with people who readers will have heard of but might not expect in this context – Muhammed Ali and Cesar Chavez- and people and movements who most readers will never have heard of – Charlies Perkins, Thich Nhat Hanh, Mairead Corrigan and Betty Williams.  Defining the time span at the last 100 years was a good choice, as it helps the book keep a tight focus, and also allows the reader to draw firm lines between the later resistance movement and their knowledge of Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance.

I had one major quibble with the text, which is that it sometimes seriously talks down to its readers.  I wonder of the authors needed to do a better job of deciding who their audience was – the “More to the Story” sections, which give further information about the countries and conflicts, sometimes seem to be written for a much younger age group than the primary sections.  For instance, the “More to the Story” section in the chapter about Vaclav Havel defines words like “intellectual,” “underground,” and “blacklisted” – words that readers have already been exposed to in the main chapter, and which could have been defined contextually rather than dropping a random dictionary definition into the text.  I appreciate that the authors are probably trying to expand the possible readership, but I think that putting some trust in readers to find a dictionary or ask a question when necessary would have served them better.  When the authors do have that trust in their readers, the text flows well and is very readable.

Despite those reservations, I think that this is an important book.  It exposes young people to some people and stories that will move and inspire them, and gives them opportunities to make some wonderful connections between many different cultures and movements.

Anne Sibley O’Brien on the web

Perry Edmond O’Brien on the web

Happy St. Patrick’s Day Links

  • Malindo Lo talks about race, fantasy worlds, and why the author’s intent doesn’t really matter in the end unless it’s reflected in the book’s content.
  • Everyone’s seen the LA Times article by now, right?  Grownups read YA?  Shocking!
  • Zetta Elliott has a wonderful essay in the March/April edition of Horn Book, sort of a personal history of race and children’s literature and how the intersection between the two can affect imagination and creativity in a child. Lucky for us you can read it online: Decolonizing the Imagination.
  • Hyphen, a magazine that explores Asian-American culture, has an article exploring the changes in teen and kidlit books with Asian protagonists.  They find that many of the books are no longer primarily about the experience of being Asian-American, but can tell all kinds of stories with characters that happen to be Asian.  Hooray!
  • Sociological Images explores the covers of books featuring overweight women.  What they find isn’t going to surprise anyone, but it’s always good to draw more attention.
  • Need another reason to get upset about library branch closures?  This graphic showing the demographics of home broadband access will give you one.
  • Liz B talks a little bit about the recent cover controversy, and what she feels is her personal responsibility.  It’s nice to see people putting thought into what they can do.
  • Penguin shows off some of the things they’re hoping to do on ebooks for the ipad.  I think we’re going to be seeing some really cool stuff being developed – I’m excited!
  • This article cracks me up – somebody measured student work during March Madness by looking at the number of articles accessed through library databases.
  • And finally, a super-interesting video that shows the full process of designing and creating a book cover through screenshots of the process.  I watched this about 10 times – the video itself is already mesmerizing, but the music puts it over the top.  Go watch!

The Firefly Letters: A Suffragette’s Journey to Cuba by Margarita Engle

Swedish traveler Frederika Bremer, young slave Cecilia, and daughter of the Cuban gentry Elena, are three young women who have had their lives very specifically laid out in front of them by society’s expectations.  Frederika and Elena, as girls brought up in wealthy families in the 1850s, have enjoyed the many privileges that their class offers, but have been constrained by the many restrictions and few opportunities available to women at the time.  Frederika reacts to these restrictions by leaving her family and blazing her own path as a feminist and traveler, while Elena accepts her position without complaint or question.  Cecilia, who was sold into slavery by her father as a child, has not accepted her circumstances, but has never had an opportunity to channel her anger and homesickness.  They are brought together when Frederika leaves her home country of Sweden, traveling without a chaperone, to explore the Cuban countryside and tell the stories of the women and slaves in Cuba, in the hopes that “stories can lead to a change in laws” (pg. 27.  Quoted from ARC – language is subject to change.)

Frederika and Cecilia are based on real people, and Engle has clearly used their real-life situations, feelings and conversations, as recorded in Frederika’s published diary, to inform and flesh out these characters.  Frederika Bremer was a feminist and a traveler, and she spent three months exploring Cuba along with her real-life translator Cecilia.  They are compelling women, and Engle’s spare free verse poetry mixes their current circumstances and memories from childhood in ways that illuminate both.  Elena is the only major character who is not based on an actual person, and you can feel it.  Her story, of an aristocratic young woman who at first fears and distrusts the strange feminist who comes to her house, but gradually comes to agree with her, is neither original nor especially well told.  Elena eventually makes a choice that is lovely, but does not ring true – I did not feel that I had seen her character go through the growth that would be necessary to make that choice.

The short chapters alternate between the viewpoints of these three women, with a few brief interjections from Cecilia’s husband that did show another side of life in Cuba, but did not especially add to the story of Bremer’s visit.  Engle is at her best when she stays close to the story of Frederika and Cecilia.  It is the moments where these two women discover each others’ history that are most illuminating.  Despite their wildly different circumstances, they forge a connection based not on similar life experiences, but on the similar feelings of loneliness and constraint that their experiences have engendered.  Cecilia’s chapters, which are very straight-forward in their telling of her unimaginable life, are the most moving.  The spare form, which did not allow Engle to fully show Elena’s transformation, is much more effective in telling Cecilia’s story, where the reader benefits from having time and space to consider Cecilia’s stories and make connections between them.  When Cecilia’s chapter on her forced marriage and pregnancy is ended with a few short lines imagining that she is free of all her attachments, the simplicity of the poetry allows her thoughts to shine through and lets the reader to feel their resonance.

This short novel in verse is a very quick read and would make a great choice for reluctant readers doing historical fiction projects.  But it’s a carefully constructed story that will also appeal to curious readers who will want to follow this story’s characters and themes further – it has certainly inspired me to learn more about the life of Frederika Bremer.  Several books about Frederika’s life and Cuba in the 1800s are listed in a welcome reference section, although it would have been nice to include some materials in this list that are more accessible to middle grade readers.

Margarita Engle on the web

Reviewed from advanced copy received from publisher at ALA Midwinter.

February 2010 Reading Log

YA

Middle Grade

Kids and YA Nonfiction

Graphic Novels

Adult Fiction

Currently Reading