Author: Roger Langridge
Colorist: Fred Stresing
My rating: 3.5 of 5
Nine-year-old Abigail is having a rough time adapting, what with moving to a new home, adjusting to a new school (in the middle of the school year!), and having her dad being so busy with trying to find a job. He can’t even keep their tradition of going to the zoo for her birthday this year! But things begin to look up when Abigail runs into Claude one day at the playground and promptly decides he’s going to be her new best friend. He’s in need of a friend himself, what with being a yeti, escaped from a government research lab and on the run. Good thing adults can’t see him (although kids can, which quickly makes Abigail popular with the other kids at school); only, the people from the government have special equipment that can find him, and they’re closing in fast.
Abigail and the Snowman is quite the unusual graphic novel. For one thing, although it is most definitely a graphic novel in the way it’s set up, I’m also inclined to compare it to a comic strip (because of the art style) and to a picture book (because of the intended demographic and the sort of story it tells). It’s really cute–definitely a feel-good, happy ending kind of story. I feel like it expresses the challenges of a single-parent family going through a difficult move very well–both from the kid’s perspective and from the parent’s–while still giving us a loving, functional family relationship. It also shows a good development of real friendship and loyalty, especially as both parties are brought to the point of making choices that are sacrificial for themselves for the safety and wellbeing of their friend. I would generally say that the intended audience is elementary grade (depending on their tolerance for a certain amount of violence/scariness; parental discretion advised as there are bad guys with guns involved in the story), although middle-graders would probably also enjoy the story. It’s heartwarming enough to be fun in a different way for grownups as well.
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.
Author: Julia Álvarez
My rating: 2.5 of 5
After his parents’ divorce, Miguel, his mom, and his bratty little sister Juanita move to Vermont to start a new life. Of course, Miguel misses his friends in New York, his baseball team, and his artist father who is always teaching him the names of colors. But soon, it seems, he’ll have more to worry about in Vermont. Mami’s Tía Lola is coming all the way from the Dominican Republic to stay with them for a while and help out. Tía Lola is embarrassing–she’s colorful and loud and talks to everyone, but she only speaks Spanish! But maybe she’s not all bad. . . .
Well, I must admit, How Tía Lola Came to
Visit Stay was a surprise for me. I really expected to love it. I probably ought to have loved it. It’s a solid middle-grade story with all the right stuff–helping kids deal with divorce, sports, family, cultural diversity, the works. Plus it gives a good look into Dominican culture, and it helps introduce kids to lots of Spanish words. Plus it teaches about giving people a chance and looking for unexpected ways to handle problems. But the truth is that this book just fell kind of flat for me. A large part of it is that the entire story is written in present tense, which has always been challenging for me to adjust to in a book. I love the premise of playing with tenses and persons in writing, but when it comes down to it, present tense is just awkward in large quantities. Also, for all the colorful details Álvarez put into the characters, they never felt like solid, real people; I could never really see them or connect to them. So, although I think I would like to give Álvarez’s writing another try in a different book, I didn’t love How Tía Lola Came to Visit Stay like I expected and wanted to.
Author: Chris Grabenstein
My rating: 4 of 5
Billy has almost resigned himself to a rotten, boring summer: his mom and dad are “spending some time apart” for the summer, so he’s stuck in a lake cabin with his mom–with no TV, no video games, no friends. Not to mention, he managed to break his iPhone and get on the wrong side of the local bullies within his first full day there. In desperation, he wanders into the study of Dr. Libris, the cabin’s owner, and begins reading books from his shelf . . . . And that’s when things begin to get interesting, as Billy hears voices coming from the island in the middle of the lake–voices saying stuff right out of the book he’s reading!
I was immediately captured by the cover of The Island of Dr. Libris; I mean, come one, doesn’t it look just delicious? Like sherbet in summer or something. I wasn’t disappointed by the story inside either. This is a solid middle-grade slice-of-life/fantasy. It discusses serious topics like parents being separated and dealing with bullies in a forthright but not overwhelmingly heavy manner, which is nice. It also brings in lots of classic literature, which is always great to see in kids’ books. The story itself is original and interesting–a sort of science-fiction view on bringing books to life. I enjoyed Dr. Libris’s lab notes scattered in among the chapters to give additional perspective on what’s happening. (Also, short chapters, making this a good choice to read when you don’t have much time in a sitting to read.) Overall, this book reminds me–in feel, rather than in specific stylistic or plot points–of works like The Mysterious Benedict Society and The Name of This Book is Secret. I would recommend The Island of Dr. Libris, particularly for middle-grade readers who enjoy works similar to those just listed, or who enjoy works bridging slice-of-life and fantasy concepts generally.