Tag Archives: Dorothy Canfield Fisher Children’s Book Award Nominee

When You Reach Me

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.

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Rapunzel’s Revenge (Graphic Novel)

Authors: Shannon Hale & Dean Hale

Illustrator: Nathan Hale

My rating: 3.5 of 5

For most of her childhood, Rapunzel lives a life of luxury with her mother, Mother Gothel–only she mustn’t ever look over the massive “garden wall” surrounding her home, she mustn’t question her mother, and she mustn’t mention her odd memory-like dreams. But on her twelfth birthday, Rapunzel just can’t contain herself anymore. She uses her impressive lasso skills (taught her by one of Mother Gothel’s guards, a kind man by the name of Mason) to climb the wall–only to find a world of desolation and slavery, which she soon finds is controlled by her mother . . . or, well, the person she thought was her mother. It turns out, she was taken from her real mother when she was just a little kid, and her actual mother is a slave in the mines now. In an attempt to control Rapunzel, Mother Gothel has her imprisoned in a tall tree that she’s created with her growth magic. But Rapunzel’s not one to sit demurely waiting for a rescuer, nor is she one to leave her real family in trouble.

I’ve seen some pretty interesting retellings before, but Rapunzel’s Revenge has got to be one of the most interesting and frankly bizarre to come my way in quite some time. It’s a western fantasy/weird west remix of the tale, complete with deserts, lassos, and outlaws–but with magic, too! And it’s not just a straight-up Rapunzel retelling, either; you’ve got Jack and the Beanstalk, for sure, and certain elements from a handful of other classic fairy tales. It’s pretty crazy, really, but in an interesting way. Rapunzel is an excellent example of the modernized empowered “princess,” a girl who’s smart and determined and takes matters into her own hands. Stubborn and kind of awkward, too, with enough personality to make her a sympathetic character, not just a modern stereotype. Her friend Jack makes a nice counterpart, with both of them challenging each other, forcing character growth and revealing character traits to the reader. As for the plot itself, it’s mostly a big rescue journey/adventure from the point where Rapunzel rescues herself and meets Jack–and it’s at this point that the western elements really start to show. It wasn’t the greatest plot ever, but a solid middle-grade story, still, plus a creative outtake on the whole retelling thing. The art is honestly not my style, but it works well enough for the story and I don’t have anything objectively negative to say about it–it’s just not what I prefer for graphic novels personally. I’m not sure I’d recommend Rapunzel’s Revenge for everyone, but if you like graphic novels and are interested in a quirky retelling with a strong female lead, it’s a story you just might enjoy.

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When Zachary Beaver Came to Town

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.

 

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Awkward

awkwardAuthor/Illustrator: Svetlana Chmakova

My rating: 4.5 of 5

Peppi Torres manages to thoroughly mess up her first day in her new middle school by 1) tripping in the hall and dumping all her books, 2) getting helped by Jaime, a quiet kid with a reputation as a huge nerd, and then 3) pushing him and running away. Following this fiasco, Peppi does manage to find a place for herself in the school’s art club where she makes some good friends . . . even if she’s pretty much on her own during the rest of the school day. She still feels awfully guilty over pushing Jaime, especially when he begins tutoring her in math. And life becomes even more complicated when Peppi’s art club and the science club–of which Jaime is a member–become locked in a fierce competition for a table at the school’s cultural festival. Totally awkward, especially since Peppi finds that Jaime might actually be a great friend.

I absolutely loved Awkward! I can’t believe I haven’t seen it getting more love. This is a fantastic realistic slice-of-life school story for everyone–in graphic novel style. The setting is middle-school, so obviously that’s the primary intended audience, but the story is great and the messages it holds are valid for everyone (I’d say upper elementary and older). The writing tone is great–it captures that, well, awkwardness of being in middle school and figuring life out and all extremely well. The things Peppi goes through are credible, the sorts of issues that real people actually deal with. But the story is also funny and immensely positive in its message. It’s a great encouragement to work hard, work together, make all sorts of friends, and believe in possibilities. The characters are rich and fun to read, full of personality and individuality. And the art does a great job of reflecting this, with expressive character designs, attractive coloring, and a layout that’s easy to follow and focuses strongly on the people. I would definitely recommend Awkward to all sorts of people, and especially to those who enjoy graphic novels or are at that, well, awkward stage of life themselves.

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Soup

soupAuthor: Robert Newton Peck

My rating: 2.5 of 5

I must admit, I initially picked this book up just because it was filed next to Richard Peck’s books and looked somewhat similar. And there are certain similarities: a sense of fun, a country feel, and a pile of mischief being notable ones. Soup is a collection of episodes that relate Rob’s friendship with Luther Wesley Vinson, affectionately (or not) known as “Soup.” Rob and Soup get themselves into just about as much trouble as two kids could, and into more than most would have the imagination to. The author walks a fine line in this book, relating a story in which the characters are troublemakers, but in which those characters are also amusing and somehow loveable too. This would be a particularly good read for those who have a strong sense of mischief themselves.

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