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Blue

Presented by The Lenoir-Rhyne University Playmakers & The Little ReadBlue

Based on the novel by Joyce Moyer Hostetter

My rating: 4.5 of 5

WWII is raging, and Ann Fay Honeycutt’s father is going off to fight. Before he goes, he leaves her a pair of blue overalls (the same color he claims the wisteria is, despite her protestations that it’s purple!). He tells Ann Fay that while he’s gone, she’s going to have to be the man of the house and look after her mother, two little sisters, and little Bobby the baby. And of course, Ann Fay assures him that she’s up for the task–and pushes herself to fulfill her commitment, accepting no help from anyone, not even her neighbor Junior Bledsoe (who is pretty obviously sweet on her). Little did her father know when he left her in charge that folks in their small North Carolinian town were going to be facing a war of sorts of their own: an outbreak of polio that wrecked havoc on the community and even on the Honeycutt family itself. Brave and strong as she is, Ann Fay’s going to have a challenge for sure keeping her family safe and together in the face of this disease.

I had the immense pleasure of seeing this stage adaptation of Joyce Moyer Hostetter’s book Blue a few weeks ago at a local college. (Yes, I know, I’m very belated in this review. Sorry.) It was a lot of fun. They did a good job of adapting the story for a small stage–the total cast was only 8 individuals, with several playing multiple parts. I particularly enjoyed their use of live stage music, old-timey local radio, walking “car rides”, and a dream fight with a wisteria plant–all of which added a lot of character to the show and also provided nearly Shakespearean-comedy worthy humor, which was nice in a story that is at times extremely sad. The balance was good. I also really enjoyed that they chose to use a children’s book for their basis . . . usually at colleges, the plays are all overly stuffy and serious, which is fine. But it’s nice to have a more innocent and sweet story once in a while. Especially when it’s full of local history and tells a sweet, moving story. And has a strong female lead. What more can you ask for? I enjoyed the play greatly, and seeing it has made me interested in reading the original novel Blue as well.

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Smile

Author/Illustrator: Raina Telgemeier

Color by: Stephanie Yue

As though all the usual pains of growing up weren’t enough, one night after Girl Scouts Raina has an accident that knocks out her two front teeth. Oww! In addition to the obvious physical pain, she has to deal with the psychological and social troubles caused by the change in her appearance. It would really help if she had supportive friends . . . but her group isn’t exactly ready to make her feel better about herself. But life goes on, and in time (and through numerous challenging circumstances) Raina begins to find where she fits and to gain the confidence to smile, even if her smile doesn’t look perfect.

I’ve been seeing Smile around for a while, but didn’t realize it was a graphic novel until I picked it up to read. (I know, I’m a little slow on the uptake sometimes.) Having read this incredible graphic novel memoir, I was highly impressed. This is a voice that we desperately need today. Telgemeier brings graphic novels from a place of fantasy to where they truly hit home. She speaks honestly and transparently to the struggles of growing up in a voice that we instantly relate to and that is absolutely credible. Moreover, she speaks to the issue of self-image in such a painfully honest manner–as she says in the novel, maybe if we talked about this sort of thing more, kids wouldn’t feel like they were the only ones dealing with this sort of stuff. I think the art fits the story perfectly; it’s expressive and dynamic, honestly showing the characters with all their flaws but also with full, vibrant personalities clearly shining through. I would give Smile high recommendations, especially for kids in that challenging middle-school to high-school time of transition–I know it made me smile!

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All Things Bright and Beautiful

Author: James Herriot

Despite the rumblings of the upcoming second World War in the distance, Jim Herriot enjoys a few sweet, timeless years before being called into the RAF. He has just married one of the best women in all of Yorkshire and has been accepted as a full partner by his former boss, the veterinarian Siegfried Farnon. During these years, he builds his own veterinary practice, interacting with all the unusual folk of the Dales. Which isn’t to say his life is all roses–veterinary medicine at that time was extremely limited, and the Dales folk are not easy to impress. And of course, animals are unpredictable at best. All told, the results aren’t always in Jim’s favor . . . but they’re quite likely to be amusing.

Along with his first book, All Creatures Great and Small, this memoir of James Herriot’s early days of veterinary work is a story I treasure and re-read frequently. It has a great balance of heart-warming-ness and good plain hilarity. Herriot’s descriptions of the Dales people and their animals is priceless–highly observant and invested, yet also invested with a good dose of self-deprecating humor. It might be a bit crude in parts, but I think on the whole, this book is written in old-fashioned good taste–but in a way that’s not boring in the least. Actually, this tends to be a book I have to read when alone as it prompts audible laughter. In addition to the wholesome storytelling itself, I really love Herriot’s descriptions of the Yorkshire Dales themselves–that wild, beautiful country–and of the challenges (and victories) facing veterinarians in the early 1940’s. I would definitely recommend All Things Bright and Beautiful, especially to those who like animal stories or memoirs (although I think these stories would be fun even if you don’t usually prefer memoirs).

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A Monster Calls

Author: Patrick Ness/Original Idea: Siobhan Dowd

Illustrator: Jim Kay

Conor was once again awake in the night when–just after midnight–the monster showed up. He ought to have been terrified of the yew tree in his backyard come walking, but the truth is, he’s seen much worse. His waking days are filled with the realities of his mother’s cancer: the days when she’s so sick and weak she can’t do anything, the way everyone at school–even the teachers–avoids him and treats him like he might be diseased himself. Then at night, there’s the nightmare . . . the one so bad that even a yew monster seems not so scary. After all, it’s just a tree.

A Monster Calls is a story I picked up after hearing several other people give it positive reviews, and I’m glad I did. This is an unexpected story, in many senses of the word. It’s eerie and dark, yet somehow everyday as well. Conor lives in the tragically mundane normal world, trying as desperately as a thirteen-year-old can to help his mom and survive school. Yet he is haunted by this absolutely horrifying nightmare . . . one that is made more frightening to the reader by not being explained until the very end. (The build-up of tension through this is quite effective.) And the yew monster is an unpredictable and spooky touch that makes what would otherwise be a fairly set family/medical drama into something other, deeply psychological and intense. It’s nearly impossible to predict the outcomes–and frankly, if not for the physical evidence the yew leaves, it would seem most likely that Conor is going insane. It’s really hard to tell sometimes. I think Jim Kay’s art is perfect for this story–inky black-and-white watercolor-type pictures with all sorts of eerie shapes and textures that build the atmosphere wonderfully. I would highly recommend A Monster Calls for anyone, say, middle school and up, although the psychological intensity might be better for a slightly older audience–I was definitely sobbing out loud by the end of the book.

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Samir and Yonatan

Author: Daniella Carmi

Translator: Yael Lotan

When his injured knee forces Samir to go to the Israeli hospital, he finds himself alone, the only Palestinian boy in a room of Israeli kids. Not only does he have to deal with challenges such as communicating in a language he’s not used to and being away from his family, he’s also bothered by his brother’s death and his own internal turmoil. Still, as he lives in the hospital room with the four other kids, he finds they are just other kids with their own circumstances. In a sense, they become family. And when Yonatan, a quiet boy who always seems to have his nose in a book and his head in the stars, extends an offer of friendship–via a trip together to Mars–Samir’s world begins to expand in ways he never imagined possible.

I found Samir and Yonatan to be a sweet, thoughtful story. It’s about tolerance, absolutely, but there’s a lot more to the story than a simple cry for peace. More like, Carmi draws out the humanity, uncertainty, and wonder intrinsic in each of us. This is a story that begins in fearful alleyways and ends in the stars–full of dreams and understanding while acknowledging the reality of fear and guilt. Samir himself is all too easy to relate to, and Yonatan is just the friend I’d love to have. Much of the plot is built on relationships and changes in Samir’s thoughts and feelings–he’s stuck in a hospital bed most of the story, so there’s not much action going on. But the story works beautifully for all that; rather, it’s the sort of plot that draws out the author’s intent the best. I would recommend Samir and Yonatan for both older children and adults, especially those who enjoy thoughtful, purposeful, and poignant stories with a gentle pacing.

 

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L, Change the World

Author: M/Translator: Takami Nieda

Based on the manga by Tsugumi Ohba & Takeshi Obata

Having completed his life’s greatest work–the rooting out and stopping of the mass murderer, Kira–detective L (considered by many to be the world’s greatest detective) ought to be flushed with victory. Yet the L FBI agent Suruga finds at the Kira Investigation Headquarters is quite otherwise: pensive, directionless. Understandable, considering that his victory cost him his mentor, his best friend, and his own life–for the fact is that to thwart Kira’s plans, L wrote his own name in the Death Note and only has a few weeks left. When Maki, the ten-year-old daughter of L’s acquaintance, the immunologist Nikaido, comes bursting into headquarters seeking help and shelter from the bio-terrorists who have killed her father and stolen a dangerous virus, L’s interest in life is renewed, however as he begins pouring his remaining days into protecting this girl and solving one last case–and perhaps saving the world in the process.

L, Change the World is really a unique reading experience in that it’s essentially licensed fanfiction. The story is set in the world of the live action movies, and is actually a novelization of a third movie that was made, spanning the time between Kira’s defeat and L’s death. So if you’ve only read the manga (and you need to read the manga), this novel will have an alternate-universe sort of feel. It does have to scramble a bit at the beginning to explain everything that’s happened to get to the point of the current story, but overall, I think the plot develops nicely and the writing style is easy to read. Obviously, the character of L is the biggest point of the story, and as a strong L fan, I am fairly impressed. His brilliance and quirkiness are true to form (as well as his sweets obsession), yet the story builds on the known and develops the character beyond who he is in the original stories–in a completely credible way. In this story, L is in a situation where his own death is immanent and the majority of his support structures have been removed entirely. So you get to see him getting involved in all kinds of ways he might never have otherwise, and wrestling with emotions and humanity in a way that is both completely foreign and utterly natural to the great detective. I would recommend L, Change the World to die-hard Death Note fans everywhere–and particularly to L fans–but I do think that it would be a bit much (in the confusing line) for other readers. So go read the manga, watch the movies, become a fan (you know you want to), and then read this book.

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Level Up

Author: Gene Luen Yang

Illustrator: Thien Pham

Dennis Ouyang has spent his entire childhood torn between his own passion for video gaming and his parents’ expectations for him to be a good Asian son and become a doctor. After his father’s death, all the pressure becomes too much, and Dennis turns to gaming, letting his studies slide . . . along with most of the rest of his life. Which is when his life takes a super-weird turn as found “angels” turn up to help/manipulate/bully him into pursuing his destiny as a gastroenterologist.

Level Up was a fascinating graphic novel–I read it all in one sitting! It basically is a coming-of-age sort of story dealing with the challenges of being a kid of Asian descent (with all the associated expectations) growing up in the U.S. I really appreciated that the author didn’t have Dennis just go through some magnificent change and grow up suddenly, but went through stages of maturity and understanding . . . just like we all go through. It was fun to see those stages of maturity compared to levels in a video game as well–very in keeping with the running underlying themes. And I LOVE that in the end, he found a satisfactory conclusion that combined his passions and his parents expectations; that’s something that a lot of people never find. As for the art, it’s simple but fun and expressive; Thien Pham does some fun stuff with colors and textured paper that add a lot of depth to the story visually. I would definitely recommend Level Up to most young-adult and up audiences as a great coming-of-age story.

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