Poetry Speaks Who I Am edited by Elise Paschen

It’s National Poetry Month, and could there be a better way to celebrate than with a first-rate collection of poems for middle grade readers?  Even better, these poems focus on a topic that weighs heavy on the minds of young readers: personal identity.  The poems come at this broad theme from many angles, sometimes taking it on very directly as in Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem “I Am Black,” sometimes in a more roundabout way. 

I was especially impressed by the diversity of poets and poems that were chosen for inclusion.  The collection presents a well-balanced mix of the old and the new, the serious and the funny, the well-known and the unfamiliar.  But more than that, the poems come from a truly diverse group of poets.  The editor has clearly put thought into the gender, race, class, and religious backgrounds of the contributors, and because of this careful selection every reader is likely to find a poem that will speak to who he or she is.   Despite being well outside the target age of this anthology, the dog-eared pages of my copy show that I made my own connections to many selections.

The book opens with “Eternity” by Jason Shinder, which is a lovely introduction to the bond that can form between a reader and a writer of poetry, despite differences of time and culture.  By highlighting a strong personal connection to poetry from the very first selection, the editor encourages young readers to make their own connections to the featured poems.  Several more poems are specifically about the act of reading or writing poetry, and the book ends with a section of blank lined pages that encourage the reader to become a writer of poetry.  I liked the sense of progression that these selections seem to encourage, starting as a reader of poetry, moving on to a person who makes a personal connection with poetry, and ending as a poet. 

The selections move easily from one poem to the next, especially considering the wide variety of poetry that is included.  The collection flows from theme to theme,  and makes some nice connections along the way.  Putting a poem in which John Keats addresses his fear of death next to the wonderful “Fears of the Eighth Grade” by Toi Derricotte, a modern poem about the fears of a middle school class, shows very starkly how the most universal themes stay the same.  A few very explicit connections like this one will catch the attention of even a less-than-careful reader and will encourage them to make other connections between the poems. 

I did find the artwork, which is on every page, a little bit distracting – particularly because much of it looks very pixelated and it covers words in two poems.  I have a feeling that some of this will be fixed in the final book – I will be looking forward to seeing how it all comes together.  A cd of the poets reading their work is included, and it makes a nice supplement to the collection.  Molly Peacock’s audio segment addresses her personal identity and how it relates to her poem – including some word play that relates to ientity within the poem.  It’s a nice way to add content, and will also help some readers who are not familiar to poetry get a feel for the rhythms of the poems they read. 

Review copy provided by the publisher.

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.

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.

One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia

Delphine is old for an eleven-year-old.  You’ve met these kids before – serious girls who seem to take the weight of the world onto their small shoulders.  When her mother was still around, she taught Delphine to be unselfish, silent, and self-sufficient – not the most childlike qualities.  And ever since her mother took off and left Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern alone with their father, Delphine has taken on a lot of responsibility for her younger sisters.

And now, in the summer of 1968, the three girls are on their way across the country to Oakland to spend a summer with their absentee mother.  The younger girls arrive with dreams of hugs and kisses from mom, sunny days on the beach, and trips to Disneyland.  Those hopes are dashed pretty quickly – instead it’s going to be greasy take-out food, a mother who resents their presence in her house, and days spent at the free summer program led by the local Black Panthers.

As a historical novel, one of the strengths of this story is that it makes the political into the personal.  Instead of dropping these three girls into a major historical moment from the history of the Black Panthers, as is the temptation in historical fiction, Garcia-Williams instead gives us a family story that takes place within the context of day-to-day life among the people who made up the movement.  The story shows a side of the Black Panthers that doesn’t get a lot of attention now, and as Delphine points out didn’t get noticed even at the time – the free community breakfasts and peaceful rallies instead of the confrontational tactics that are usually remembered.  Their sudden relationship with the Black Panthers does change the girls significantly, making them take a closer look at their own identity as well as the social change that is happening around them, but never in a way that is didactic.  It just grows out of the story. 

Williams-Garcia also manages to make the late-sixties setting always present, slipping in details about television shows or clothes, without making it feel too distant.  The details she chooses are evocative enough to give a sense of time, but relatable enough that kids won’t feel alienated in that capital-H Historical Fiction kind of way.   As with any great historical fiction, the center of the novel is not the history, but instead a universal story, in this case a family story about both the struggle for the love of a parent and the search for a personal identity.

Cecile is not like any mother that these girls have ever seen – her kitchen is used for writing and printing poems, not for laundry and making dinner.  In a children’s story where three little girls are sent to stay with their distant, uncaring mother, it is easy to expect the kind of trite sea-change that would lead to Cecile suddenly turning into a maternal figure.  Instead, she seems to develop a grudging respect for the three girls – a growth arc that is both more interesting and more true to the character than what could have been a stock character reversal. 

The family dynamic between the three sisters is a treat to read.  These are three very different girls – responsible almost-grown-up Delphine, dramatic and needy Vonetta, and set-in-her-ways Fern who notices things around her.  While they bicker and argue between themselves, as siblings do, they are also fiercely loyal to each other, especially any time that they step outside of the primarily-black community where they live.  When they go on the offensive they present a hysterical united front to the world – these girls will batter down any takers with a wall of little-girl patter coming from three sides.  Their relationship is a big part of what makes this book such a delight.

Rita Williams-Garcia on the web.

8th Grade Superzero by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich

“‘When I was little I thought God was like a superhero,’ I say, keeping my eyes down.  He doesn’t respond, so I look up.  ‘I wanted to be a superhero, too.  Not like I wanted to be God, I mean.  Just… you know.  I wanted to have some kind of power that zapped everything perfect.'” (page 111.  Quoted from ARC – language may change.)

That’s Reggie.  He writes about a superhero called Night Man, hangs out with his intensely socially-conscious best friend Ruthie, and mostly tries to stay out of the way in school. Apparently, he also likes to spend his time making unsuspecting librarians fall completely head-over-heels for him.  I honestly can’t remember the last time I was so charmed by a character.  From the very first page, Reggie McKnight put some kind of vice grip around my heart and didn’t ever let go.

Reggie had no intention of running for class president.  In fact, ever since a public speaking incident on the first day of school that led to his nickname – Pukey – Reggie has done whatever he can to stay out of the spotlight.  He’s certainly not looking for responsibility – not in the school government, or at the homeless shelter where his church youth group volunteers.  But other people in his life recognize what Reggie does not – that his strong sense of empathy, his willingness to put others first, and his ability to work hard when he cares about a task make him a natural leader.  And while his parents, teachers, and friends have never forced leadership on him, they are more than willing to push Reggie along when he finally decides that he’s seen enough of the status quo and begins to seek out ways to foster change in his school and community.

My favorite thing about Reggie is his willingness to change his mind.  Not in a wishy-washy way – in an open-minded way that many adults still haven’t figured out.  And when he screws up – which he certainly does, sometimes – he has the guts and the grace to admit to his mistakes and work to fix them.  As Reggie figures out while talking to his partner in a Big Brother-type program,

‘Even Night Man makes mistakes.’

‘Even though he’s a superhero?’ asks Charlie.

‘Yeah,’ I say.  ‘Being brave enough to make mistakes is, um, um, part of what makes him a superhero.’ There’s a click in my brain when I say that. (page 184.  Quoted from ARC – language may change.)

This is a book that doesn’t shy away from touchy subjects – religion, unemployment, race, homelessness, and bullying are all part of Reggie’s story.  But Rhuday-Perkovich has a light touch, and works with these topics in a way that is very personal and never without humor.  Religion, for example, is an important part of Reggie’s life, and is written about in a way that is forthright and positive while still allowing space for questions and doubts – something that is too rare in books for children that have a religious element, which so often seem either blandly proselytizing or flatly anti-religion.  (On a side note – I do think this is changing, with wonderful books like this one, Once Was Lost by Sara Zarr, Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork, and others coming out recently.)

While Reggie’s background as a Jamaican-American is central to who he is, it isn’t what the story is about.  Stories about slavery or racism can be great books, but those are stories that obviously can’t be told without characters of color – and those subjects are at the center of the majority of books for children that feature African-American characters.  This is a story that could easily have been told with a white protagonist, and it’s important that it wasn’t – kids of color have many experiences and stories to tell, and I hope that we will continue to see more and more books that reflect the variety of those stories.  (Especially if those books are as good as this one!)

While the topics that the book tackles are important and are handled with grace, it is the characters who make this book special.  Every character is nuanced, and almost every character surprised me at some point in the book.  The novel is populated by characters like Reggie’s father, with his hierarchy of Caribbean countries (and as a man of Jamaican ancestry, you can guess what country he puts on top!) and his frustration during a period of unemployment; George, an addict from the homeless shelter where Reggie volunteers who, despite his grumpiness, has an incredible capacity to create a feeling of hope in a tough situation; and Reggie’s older sister, who is transitioning from terrifying star-athlete to still-terrifying-but-maybe-not-really girly girl. But the core of the story is with Reggie and his two best friends, Ruthie and Joe C.  They’re three very different kids, and sometimes those differences can threaten to pull them apart – when Ruthie tries to forcibly drag her friends into her one-woman revolution, or when white Joe C. tries to teach his black best friends about the history of hip-hop, or when Reggie grows out of the project that was the initial connection between himself and Joe C.  But they are three truly good-hearted young people who care about each other deeply.  It is only with the support of this network of friends, family, church, and others that Reggie can grow into himself and become a confident young man.  They help him learn that he doesn’t have to be a superhero to make a difference in his world.

I know that it’s only January, but I cannot imagine many better books for young people being published in 2010.  In fact, I would count this among the best middle grade novels I have ever read.  One year from now, I hope that we will all be whispering about how 8th Grade-Superzero is poised to pick up some heavy hardware at the ALA Youth Media Awards.  (And now I’m off to bed so I can get up early for the ALA Youth Media Awards!)

Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich on the web.

Candle Man, Book One: The Society of Unrelenting Vigilance by Glenn S. Dakin

Theo is bored with his room.  He is bored with the millet and greens that he eats for every meal.  He is bored with his one yearly visit to the outside world –  a birthday trip to a deserted cemetery.  He is bored with the three people who he has met in his boring, boring life.

But Theo has a terrible disease, and so he must be kept locked away from other people, he must wear gloves at all times, and he must submit to horrible medical treatments every day inside the Mercy Tube.  And so nothing interesting ever happens to Theo – until he finds a strange package during his birthday trip to the cemetery.  A package with his name on it.  And suddenly Theo finds himself out in the world, and learning some alarming things about his disease and the people who have kept him prisoner for so long.

Theo’s world is a strange and wonderful one, and the reader has the fun of discovering it along with him.  The strange creatures, diabolical machines, and very unusual people who Theo meets would already be enough to leave the sheltered young man breathless and confused, but the people in this world also have a maddening habit of giving things very misleading names.   The Society of Good Works, led by Dr. Saint?  Yeah, they’re the bad guys.  On top of all this, Theo must quickly learn about his strange powers – and what exactly they have to do with the mysterious newspaper clippings about an old hero named the Candle Man.

Theo grows into self-reliance very quickly in the second half of the book – too quickly for me to believe after getting to know him as a completely ineffectual young man who has almost no knowledge of the world.  And honestly, I missed the early version of Theo later in the book.  Watching Theo learn how he world works after his isolation was the part of the book that drew me in most, and also provided some of the funniest moments.  There was some implication that his sudden transformation into the kind of hero who gets things done is tied up into his powers – perhaps this is something the reader will learn more about in later books.

In the end, this is a good old-fashioned adventure story of the kind that has plenty of mystery and doesn’t forget how to be funny.  I did find it a little bit meandering and occasionally too caught up in all the cool creatures that exist in the world.   But since most of the meanders (and the creatures!) are genuinely interesting, I don’t think the target audience will be bothered.  Readers will be curious about Theo’s further adventures – I know that I’ll be looking forward to learning more about the myth of the Candle Man.

Glenn Dakin on the web.

Review copy provided by publisher.

Alex and the Ironic Gentleman by Adrienne Kress

alex-and-the-ironic-gentlemanAlex and the Ironic Gentleman is not about a little boy named Alex.  Nor is it about a gentleman who uses irony.  It is about Alex Morningside – who is a girl, thank you very much – and her quest to rescue her sixth grade teacher from some very nasty pirates.  Along the way, Alex has one surreal adventure after the next –  from a mysterious train ride where one person disappears after every meal, to a chaotic movie set where Alex must cajole the  star giant octopus into acting his part, to a massive and wonderful hotel with no guests.

Alex is a delightful heroine.  She’s always an active participant – this is a girl who knows how to make things happen, instead of waiting for things to happen to her.  And her complete indifference when people assume she is a boy is refreshing.  As the narrator puts it, “it wasn’t that she wanted to be a boy or anything, it was simply that she didn’t see much difference in being treated as a girl or boy. Because, after all, everyone is just people.”

Adrienne Kress has a way with words.  Her delightfully droll asides can only be described as Lemony Snicket-esque.  And like in Mr. Snicket’s books, the narrator of Alex and the Ironic Gentleman is directly addressing the reader with witty wordplay and little bits of additional information.  It’s a narrative device that is charming in the beginning of the story, and really serves to draw the reader in.  I was delighted to find that as the tone got a little bit grating, the author backed off.  When the action really gets going, the narrative asides and bits of backstory come further apart and get out of the way of the story.

This is a book with a funny sense of time and place – while it reads like a historical adventure novel, little bits of the modern world find their way into the text.  The laptops and automated refrigerators felt like an anomaly in the world of the story.  But in this strange book, throwing the reader for a loop is the norm – as the little old ladies of the innocent-seeming Daughters of the Founding Fathers’ Preservation Society will attest.

For readers who can’t get enough of Alex’s adventures, the next book in the series, Timothy and the Dragon’s Gate, was recently released.

Alex and the Ironic Gentleman on the web.

Adrienne Kress on the web.

Adrienne Kress’ blog.

Theodosia and the Staff of Osiris by R.L. LaFevers

theodosia-and-the-staff-of-osirisTheodosia Throckmorton is in even more trouble than usual.  And as readers of her first adventure, Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos, know, trouble is one of the many things that find Theodosia on a regular basis.  Among the other things that seem to find their way to Theo: ancient Egyptian curses, power-hungry madmen seeking to control the world, mummies that walk the Earth, and the most terrifying thing of all: Theodosia’s Grandmother.

During her previous adventures, Theodosia was introduced to the nefarious Serpents of Chaos, an organization that seeks to engulf the world in chaos and violence.  And when Theodosia accidentally reactivates the Staff of Osiris, an ancient Egyptian object with mysterious power over the dead, the Serpents of Chaos want in on the action.  It will take all of Theo’s considerable ingenuity and spunk to stop their evil plan – but first she’ll have to get away from the many governesses hired by her grandmother.

The second book in the Theodosia Throckmorton series delivers with nonstop action, good history, sly humor, and a delightfully precocious protaganist.  A few characters from the first book are not who they seem – and is Theodosia’s grandmother actually showing signs of – gasp – humanity?

These books aren’t just a load of fun – they’re also beautifully made with great attention to detail.  The cover art is striking, and the spine is designed to look like an old leatherbound book.  The old-book look is continued with the thick stock of the paper, slightly old-fashioned typeface, and an uneven deckle edge.  Finally, if you peek underneath the jacket you’ll find an old map of London where a curious reader can follow Theodosia’s adventures.

This is a great choice for Percy Jackson readers who are chomping at the bit waiting for the final book, or for anyone who likes their heroes smart and sassy.  I’ll be looking forward to more from Theodosia.

R.L. LaFevers on the web

R.L. LaFevers’ blog

Theodosia and the Staff of Osiris on the web

The Star of Kazan, by Eva Ibbotson

starofkazanA good old fashioned fairy-tale featuring a kind-hearted orphan girl, the pair of gentle Swiss cooks who find and raise her, a trio of nutty professors, and a returning mother who may not be what she seems. Annika spends her days exploring Vienna with her friends, learning to cook exquisite dishes, and dreaming of her long-lost mother. Since she was abandoned in the Alps as a baby, Annika has imagined every possible scenario for her mother’s return. When it finally happens, she is overjoyed to find that her mother is a beautiful and rich landowner who has been desperately searching for her lost child. The only disappointment is that she must leave her dear friends, adopted family, and beloved city to join her mother in an unfamiliar, far-off home. When they arrive, some things about the new home strike Annika as very strange, but her devotion to her new mother make her ignore any misgivings. The reader will share the sense of unease, and will cheer for Annika and the mysteriously stable-boy as they uncover the mystery of what Annika’s mother is really after.

The good people of this story are dedicated and hard-working, and Annika is no exception. She is unable to understand her family’s desire to avoid hard work at all costs, and she shines when she has a difficult task to accomplish. Even when the action is taking place in her mother’s decrepit manor house in the north, Annika’s love for Vienna is central to the story, and the city is lovingly recreated in period detail and contrasted with the stark landscape of Annika’s new home. However, the story really picks up once Annika has uncovered the plot that’s at work and begins plotting her escape. While she unwinds the threads of her mother’s plan, Annika fights her way back to her home and her real family.

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.