Author: Frank Cottrell Boyce
Illustrator: Steven Lenton
My rating: 5 of 5
Prez used to live with his grandfather, a crusty old sailor who took care of Prez and told stories about traveling the world. Then, as his grandfather’s memory got worse and worse, Prez took care of his grandfather. That is, until they came and took Prez’s grandfather away and put Prez in the Temporary. Now Prez is staying with the Blythe family on their farm for the summer–trying to help where he can, but not saying a thing. Enter Sputnik: a weird little alien wearing goggles and a kilt who always carries a doorbell with him. He tells Prez that 1) he’s here to look after Prez and 2) they only have until the end of summer to save the Earth. Yikes. On top of that, Prez can’t figure out why everyone just accepts Sputnik’s appearance out of nowhere and is so thrilled when he shakes their hand . . . oh, wait, to everyone else, Sputnik looks like a dog. This is going to be an interesting summer.
Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth is just so utterly zany that I can’t possibly do it justice. It has all the fabulous writing of Boyce’s other books, which I just love. The characters are heartwarming and funny. I really liked the Blythes; they manage to be good people with kind intentions without being an overkill unbelievable foster family. I absolutely adore the way Boyce writes family conversations; it’s like this cloud of sentences competing on the page! And there’s Prez, sitting quietly in the midst of it all. Sputnik’s character is fabulously absurd–he adds quite the wild-card effect to basically everything. Gravity tides, real working light sabers, reverse grenades that put things back together . . . physics does not work normally around this strange being. But I love the way he sees the world, the way things we typically think of as amazing are unimpressive to him, but random ordinary things are important enough to be worth putting on his list to save the planet. He has a way of making you re-think priorities. Basically, Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth is a fabulous, funny middle-grade story, and I would highly recommend it.
Author: Jack Prelutsky
Illustrator: Jimmy Pickering
My rating: 3.5 of 5
Past the outer reaches of our solar system lie wonders the likes of which you could never imagine. But beware! Not all of those wonders are friendly, and some are downright deadly . . . planets that make you laugh yourself to death, giant demon birds, a beholder who waits in silence with one solitary, staring eye. Scary stuff.
The Swamps of Sleethe does something most unusual–it combines the dark cautionary tones of older fairy tales with the chilling horror of a good ghost story with an absurd Seussical element. All in a variety of verse forms. And manages to do it well! I actually quite enjoyed this strange collection of children’s poetry. It’s obviously tailored to appeal to a middle-grade audience, but I enjoyed it as an adult as well. Fair warning that basically all of these poems are describing strange ways to die on equally strange and impossible planets. It’s all pretty macabre, but as with Last Laughs, it’s in a darkly humorous sort of way that’s actually kind of appealing. (Or maybe I’m just a terrible person and they’re not really funny at all.) The last poem was kind of a sucker punch to the reader, but a timely one that made the whole volume all the more powerful and striking. Ooh, and the illustrations that accompany the poems are just fabulous–interesting color combinations and weird but fascinating designs that I really liked. I wouldn’t say that The Swamps of Sleethe is for everyone, but if you enjoy a bit more macabre sense of humor, this could be fun. Or if you’re a parent/teacher who’s having trouble getting a middle-grader to read poetry, this could be a good option to try; they might actually find it enjoyable!
Editor: Kazu Kibuishi
My rating: 4.5 of 5
Perhaps it’s a place where festivities turn to horror. Or maybe it’s a place where stories are broadcast from all over, where magic is made. It may not be an actual place at all, but rather something symbolizing our sense of self. Whatever the case, the idea of a lost island, isolated and strange, is tantalizing and full of equal parts fear and wonder. Come and see what’s there to find.
I’ve read one volume of Kibuishi’s Explorer series previously, The Hidden Doors, which I quite enjoyed. The Lost Islands brings a similar experience–a collection of graphic shorts by a variety of authors/illustrators, all somehow connected by the titular idea. It’s great to see the immense variety that is presented in this collection. You’ve got light, fluffy pieces and scary, adventurous stories and even one that’s contemplative and psychological. All in all, it’s a good selection; I don’t think there was a single story I didn’t enjoy. The art is all excellent, again with a good bit of variety between styles. The stories are generally middle-grade appropriate, but recommended for basically all ages, in my opinion. I especially appreciate that the stories aren’t just existential occurrences; they focus on ideas such as hard work, self-awareness, being true to oneself, and the importance of being a good friend. I would definitely recommend Explorer: The Lost Islands, and I look forward to reading more by the authors/illustrators represented here.
Contributors: Jake Parker, Chrystin Garland, Jason Caffoe, Dave Roman, Raina Telgemeier, Braden Lamb, Michel Gagné, Katie Shanahan, Steven Shanahan, Eric Kim, Selena Dizazzo, & Kazu Kibuishi
Author: Andrew Clements
My rating: 4.5 of 5
Normally, Jack Rankin is something of a model kid–polite, hard-working, good grades. Life isn’t exactly normal right now, though. The entire middle school has been dumped in the ancient high-school building for the year until their new building is ready to use . . . the high-school building where Jack’s dad works as the janitor. Not a big deal, except let’s be honest, when the other kids find out, it’s totally a big deal. Let the teasing begin. And wondering why his dad so desperately wants to ruin his life, Jack begins to get angry. That’s when he comes up with the perfect revenge.
Although I’ve been vaguely aware of Andrew Clements’ writings for some time, this is the first time I’ve actually read one of his books, and I must say, I’m impressed. This middle-grade/coming-of-age story is warm, humorous, accessible, and engaging. Moreover, it delves deep into the complexities of the parent-child relationship at a challenging age and stage of life, opening some interesting discussions on the topic from both the child’s and the parent’s point of view. I love, love, love that the story actually carries Jack through the transformation of perspective from seeing his dad as someone who provides for him and tells him what to do to seeing his dad as an actual whole person with his own problems and stories and personality. It’s something I’ve experienced personally, but I’ve never seen a book actually develop this phenomenon before. I think this is what truly raises the bar in this book, transforming it from an amusing middle-grade story to a beautiful, moving coming-of-age story. I also really enjoyed how much individual personality each of the characters had and the way in which that personality affected the flow of the plot. In short, The Janitor’s Boy was an impressive surprise for me, and I would highly recommend this book.
Author: Frank Cottrell Boyce
My rating: 5 of 5
Liam has always been tall for his age, getting mistaken for being older than he is and being teased by other children for it. Now at the age of twelve, he’s already growing facial hair and being mistaken for an adult. Which is mostly awful. . . . But it does have its advantages at times. Like when he was mistaken for a new teacher at his new school or when he and his classmate Florida would go to the stores with him pretending to be her father. And ever one to push the limits, Liam begins to see just how far he can go with this “adult” thing–never dreaming that doing so would end up with him being stuck in a spaceship with a bunch of kids looking to him to get them safely home.
So, Cosmic was one of those books that blew my expectations completely out of the water. I had never even heard of the author previously (clearly an oversight on my part), and it appeared both from the cover and the description to be a rather average middle-grade story of hijinks and randomness. Well, the middle-grade hijinks and randomness is definitely there, but average this book is not. It uses humor and a tall tale sort of setting to look at what being an adult is really all about–as well as to examine how much the advantages of being an adult are wasted on actual grown-ups who don’t have the sense of fun and irresponsibility to really enjoy them. It also looks at major themes like fatherhood and the relationships between fathers and their children in a way that is quite touching. But the story never gets bogged down in these themes; rather they are revealed gradually through the improbable and ridiculous circumstances in which Liam and his companions find themselves. It’s very funny–perhaps even more so reading this as an adult, although this is definitely written for a younger audience and is completely appropriate for such, even for a younger elementary grade readership. There’s something of a universality in the midst of absurdity to be found in Cosmic, and I would highly recommend this book.
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.