Author: Daniel Pinkwater
My rating: 4 of 5
Getting left with his Uncle Mel for 6 weeks over summer break wasn’t too bad–other than trying to survive solely on junk food. But then, when Uncle Mel got dragged away to Rochester for a 2-week training session for his work, Eugene got dragged along as well and found himself going mad with boredom . . . that is, until he saw a documentary movie with his uncle about a man searching Lake Ontario for a monster called the Yobgorgle. That’s when Eugene has the bright idea to get in touch with this guy, Ambrose McFwain, who (let’s face it) is rather mad but also quite interesting, and who hires Eugene as his assistant on the spot. The summer’s about to get a lot less boring and a lot more wacky.
Daniel Pinkwater is one of those underappreciated authors who can take the absolute zaniest things and make something absolutely captivating out of them. Yobgorgle is a tall tale about a kid and an inept monster hunter that gets taller the longer it goes. All told in first-person from a twelve-year-old’s point of view. And Pinkwater nails the twelve-year-old part impressively; there’s a dry, cutting observation to the way Eugene views the world, with none of the filters and social niceties that adults use in their way of expressing themselves. No, Eugene tells it like he sees it, for better or for worse. And the situations he finds himself in just keep getting more and more spectacularly strange as he goes. It’s all very funny and engaging. It’s also interesting to read this book today; it was originally published in 1979, and it’s telling. There are so many little cultural snippets that loudly proclaim that this is a story of a bygone era . . . the clothing, the emphasis on vending machines (Uncle Mel’s job is working on them), but perhaps most of all the way a twelve-year-old kid is able to just roam around Rochester, New York on his own. It’s an interesting peek into the past, although with the specifics of this book, it’s a past that never was. Still, another zany, all-ages-friendly offering from an amazing author; Yobgorgle definitely goes on my recommended list.
Author: Rebecca Stead
My rating: 5 of 5
Growing up, Miranda’s life has been pretty normal. Her childish yet bright single mother falling in love, wavering over whether to give Richard (Mr. Perfect) a key to their New York apartment, getting all excited over entering a TV game show, making plans for what to do with the winnings before she ever gets on the show. Her best friend Sal who has always been there for her, growing up together, like two sides of the same coin. But her sixth grade year, Miranda’s life begins to fall apart. Sal stops talking to her for no obvious reason, and suddenly nothing seems certain anymore. And then she starts getting these messages, small notes giving her instructions, telling her things about the future that no one should have known, claiming that the writer has come back in time to prevent something awful–and that her following these instructions is vital to this happening.
When You Reach Me is one of those unexpected, brilliant finds that just go to show that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. Although the whole Newbery Award should have probably been a good indicator of that. It’s like this fabulous mashup of the things I love best of the writings of Madeleine L’Engle (no surprise, since she’s clearly an influencer of Stead’s writing), E. L. Konigsburg, and Frank Cottrell Boyce. The writing itself is just really good, for one, with layers of depth in the characters and little observations of the everyday thrown into the mix and with a lot of character development and growth and self-realization over the course of the story. That in itself would make for a great story, but then you throw in all the time-travel stuff and the mystery surrounding that, and the book goes to a whole new level in my mind. I liked that attention was given to the effects of time travel, but essentially zero mention was made of the actual mechanics; it wouldn’t work in every situation, but for this story, it was the best possible way to handle the topic. The inclusion of all the references to A Wrinkle in Time really helped to set the stage and explain the time travel better, so that was nicely done as well. Oh, and this is an actual instance of first-person, present-tense that actually works; it feels like reading a letter for the most part, maybe that letter Miranda was supposed to write. Recommended particularly for middle-grade readers, but this is one of those stories that surpasses its recommended grade range, so if you like the above authors’ works and are interested in time travel-related stories, When You Reach Me may be worth trying.
Author: Kimberly Willis Holt
My rating: 4.5 of 5
Nothing much ever happens in the sleepy Texas town of Antler. Or so Toby Wilson thinks until the summer of 1971 blows into town like an ill wind, bringing challenges and change aplenty. His best friend Cal’s brother is in Vietnam fighting, and Cal can’t seem to bring himself to even write him back. Toby’s mom went to Nashville for a country music competition, and now Toby isn’t sure she’s ever coming home. And then Zachary Beaver rolls into town in a trailer with red letters proclaiming him the fattest boy in the world. That sure brings some excitement to the town as folks line up to pay their two dollars and gawk (Toby and Cal included). But then Zachary’s guardian leaves town . . . without Zachary, and as they begin to spend more time with him, Toby gradually discovers there’s more to Zachary than a stuck-up, overly hygienic, overweight kid.
Why does this book not get more love?! I’d never even heard of When Zachary Beaver Came to Town until I happened to stumble across it in the middle of a book sale, where I picked it up on whim. It’s fabulous. The tone is simple and captures small-town thirteen-year-old boy remarkably well. There are a lot of coming-of-age elements as Toby and his friends deal with loss, loneliness, love, family, and learning to understand those who are different from themselves. And all of this is expressed in a simple yet moving way that I really enjoyed reading. I valued the flaws that were present even in the most likable of the characters, the humanity of them, and the way these flaws influenced their choices. It was also interesting to read something Vietnam War era that wasn’t focused on big cities, university campuses, and peace protests; you get a much better picture here of how the war affected everyday life for the majority of the country, I think, and just a better picture of what life was like at that time. I would certainly recommend When Zachary Beaver Came to Town both for middle-grade readers (the intended audience) and for older readers as well. It’s excellent.
Author: Marguerite Abouet
Illustrator: Clément Oubrerie
Aya, vol. 2
My rating: 3.5 of 5
The town of Yopougon is booming with life. While Adouja struggles to care for her new baby, her father roams the streets taking pictures of everyone he can in an attempt to identify his grandson’s father. Adouja’s friends try to help her with the baby while attending to their own lives as well (like Bintou’s new boyfriend). A beauty pageant is in the works for the whole of Yopougon. The local beer factory struggles to stay in business, making uncomfortable cuts in employment to do so. All over town, couples pair off and make love. And in the midst of it all, young Aya lives circumspectly, kind and beautiful, devoted to her studies and her friends.
Aya of Yop City was a graphic novel I randomly picked up off the shelf after seeing it mentioned several times in various places. I’m glad I did, even though it isn’t my favorite graphic novel by any means. For one thing, it provides a really insightful look at daily life in Ivory Coast in the 1970’s–and how often do you find a book that takes you there? I think this is the first book I’ve found that is set in Ivory Coast at all, regardless of the time period. And I think the style and plot of this book allow it to present a good picture of the culture, which is really neat. Furthermore, the story is funny (especially Hyacinte going around taking snapshots of everyone) and warm. I found the author’s explanations in the back of the book about child-rearing in this sort of community was also really interesting, as well as the way this is played out in the plot. The art is really attractive and bright; it fits the story well and gives a great feel for the community. On the other hand, I found the extent to which the book was scattered around numerous people and plots to be somewhat distracting. And the number of affairs going on in the story was a bit much. . . . I guess what I’m trying to say is that I would have enjoyed this graphic novel even more if it had been more focused on Aya herself, who is a fascinating character. Maybe it’s my own fault for jumping in on the second volume (although I have to say that this volume is generally quite easy to get into without feeling like you missed a lot from the first volume). In any case, for those who enjoy graphic novels full of drama and culture, I think Aya of Yop City would be an interesting choice to try.
Author: Diana Wynne Jones
Also published as Wilkin’s Tooth
My rating: 5 of 5
Jess and Frank opened Own Back Ltd. when their parents stopped their allowance for the summer. It seemed like a clever idea at the time. But when their first customer is the town bully–the very person they were hoping to initiate revenge upon!–they begin to rethink their idea. Not that it’s so easy to back out at that point; Buster would probably beat them up if they tried. Soon, however, they find themselves way out of their depth, frighteningly so. The two siblings would gladly retire from the revenge business entirely–if only they can make things right first.
As always, Diana Wynne Jones brings a creative, unique tale in Witch’s Business. The entire story is a sort of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie chain of events, with attempts to solve one problem leading right into new problems, again and again. It really is quite the cautionary tale, although most folks contemplating revenge are unlikely to end up in as much trouble as Frank, Jess, and their friends encounter with their local witch. As expected of Jones’ writing, the characters, prose, and plot are all excellent. I really can’t praise her writing style in general enough. I particularly liked, in this story, that 1) the characters’ presuppositions about one another are challenged, and 2) they end up becoming friends with people they would never have considered interacting with before the events unfolded. The growing relationships are quite interesting, and I think the story’s a good challenge to us all in regards to those two items. I also enjoyed the slightly old-fashioned country setting; it’s the sort of place where it seems like anything could happen. Which it did. Witch’s Business is an ideal adventure/fantasy/slice-of-life story for upper elementary to high-school readers, but even better, it’s the sort of tale that just about anyone of any age can enjoy. Highly recommended.