Tag Archives: parent-child relations

The Janitor’s Boy

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.

 

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Cosmic

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.

 

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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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How Tía Lola Came to (Visit) Stay

Author: Julia Álvarezhow-tia-lola-came-to-visit-stay

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.

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Tender Morsels

Author: Margo Lanagantender morsels

My rating: 3.5 of 5

WARNING: Mature Audience/Contains rape & incest

Ever since her mother’s death, Liga has lived in abuse and isolation, first from her father and later from the young men in her village. In a moment of desperation, Liga decides to end her own life and that of her baby daughter–only to have a most mysterious being interfere and offer her another way out: an exchange of her life in the real world for a safe life in her own personal “heaven.” And so, for many years, Liga and her two daughters live safely in peace . . . but the real world won’t be kept out forever, nor will strong-willed girls be kept in.

If you’ve read anything by Margo Lanagan, you won’t be surprised when I say that Tender Morsels was dark and unsettling. I think if you leave a book of hers undisturbed, you’ve read it wrong. Tender Morsels takes several story elements from the classic fairy tale, “Snow White and Rose Red,” and transforms them into a dark but hopeful tale. It wrestles with the harms women can and do receive from men–and with bringing that fact into balance with the wonderful, healthy relationships that are also possible. It deals with the concept of escapism and the fact that life is meant to be lived fully–the hurts, yes, but also the glorious joys and loves that it can bring. I think Lanagan’s handling of these concepts was well done; meaningful, conflicted, and thought-provoking to be sure. I also appreciated that she dealt with some very difficult topics without cheapening them by making them erotic or overly detailed, while still maintaining the painful emotional impact of them. Honestly, I probably should rate this book a 5 of 5, but it just didn’t work that well for me in some regards. I can’t even say why exactly . . . the plot was too loose and all over the place, perhaps? I’m not sure who the actual protagonist even is? I can’t even say how I really feel about the ending? Whatever the case, Tender Morsels was an excellently written story, just not one of my personal favorites.

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When Marnie Was There

Studio GhibliWhen Marnie was There

Written by Keiko Niwa, Masashi Andō, & Hiromasa Yonebayashi/Produced by Yoshiaki Nishimura & Toshio Suzuki/Directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi/Music by Takatsugu Muramatsu/Based on When Marnie Was There by Joan G. Robinson

My rating: 4.5 of 5

Anna very well understands the way the world works, the fact that some people are accepted and others are necessarily outsiders for whatever reason. She doesn’t question that she herself is an outsider, alone at school, ill-tempered at times, a worry to her foster parents. When her asthma causes the doctor to recommend she be sent away to get some fresh air away from the city though, things begin to change a bit. She stays with relatives (of her foster parents) on an out-of-the-way island where everything seems to be more laid back and she can spend time exploring and drawing alone without being fussed over so much. And in her explorations, Anna finds herself drawn to an old, abandoned manor house across the bay . . . . and it’s at that old manor that she meets Marnie, a girl who will change her life in all sorts of unexpected ways but also a girl who will baffle Anna in many ways.

Okay, before anything else, I’m just going to say that there are going to be spoilers here. Because I have no idea how to honestly review this movie without spoilers. Sorry. So . . . I truly enjoyed When Marnie Was There, although I was kind of baffled through most of the story. It was worth sitting through the confusion, because when everything was explained it was extremely moving to the point that I cried. The way the story develops is almost dreamlike at parts, or rather, it’s as though dreams are being woven throughout Anna’s reality. Or perhaps it’s more as though two disparate points in time are briefly connected. In any case, although at times confusing, the friendship that develops between Anna and Marnie is really sweet and cute. And this is where the spoilers come in: the story totally seems like it’s shoujo ai through most of the plot, but the end reveals something very unexpected and different and absolutely touching. All in all, it’s a sweet story that’s developed quite nicely with plenty of drama and mystery. I appreciate that it also delves into deep issues like child neglect and the insecurity that orphans can feel sometimes even in loving homes. And of course, being a Studio Ghibli film, the art is absolutely stunning; I always enjoy their attention to all the fine details that make the illustration not just nice but amazing. Essentially, I would recommend When Marnie Was There to pretty much anyone, although I will note that if you’re not comfortable with shoujo ai, you might find watching this a bit weird (even though it’s technically not).

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The Ogre Downstairs

Author: Diana Wynne Jonesthe ogre downstairs

My rating: 4.5 of 5

Johnny, Caspar, and Gwinny are pretty much convinced that their new step-father is the worst thing that could have happened to him; he’s grumpy, demands quiet all the time, doesn’t understand children at all, and gets angry at the slightest things. The three siblings actually call him “the Ogre” when he’s not around to hear. The Ogre’s two sons, Douglas and Malcolm are fairly high on their “worst things” list as well–stuck up prigs that they are. But there’s nothing like a good distraction to keep your mind off your troubles, and the Ogre inadvertently provides the best distraction possible: two chemistry sets (one each for Johnny and Malcolm) that have some most unusual effects. Giving the ability to fly, just for instance. . . . Soon all five children are way out of their depth, experimenting with all sorts of combinations to see what magical effects they can achieve–and trying to clean up the unexpected results!

With her classic good sense and amazing writing, Diana Wynne Jones produces another magical (in all the best senses of the word) tale in The Ogre Downstairs. Although this is an older story (copyright 1974), it’s full of the excellent characterizations, beautifully accessible writing, incredible observation of people, and neverending sense of wonder and adventure that mark, well, all of her works that I’ve ever read. I found it intriguing that, in this story, rather than the usual buildup to a huge finish toward the end, the pacing is more gradual with more seeming to happen right from the start. It actually reminds me of an Edith Nesbit story somewhat, what with the magic chemistry set providing the catalyst for all sorts of rather episodic adventures. Everything ties together beautifully though, which is something I’ve always admired about Jones’ writing. And the characters are wonderful–the kids avoid being stereotypes and are people you can relate to easily, yet each of the five has an individual personality that is kept quite distinct. Very artistically done. My sole complaint, and the one reason this isn’t a 5-star read in my opinion, is that some of the Ogre’s actions were construed, in my mind at least, as being outright abusive–as opposed to a bit ornery and unaccustomed to children but generally well meaning, which I think was the intent. Part of that is the children’s perspective, part is that this is a 70’s story and things were seen differently then, and part is that I work with kids and am trained to be unnaturally sensitive to that sort of thing; however, even with those explanations, the situation was enough to bother me, especially with the ending being what it was. Still, on the whole, even considering that issue, I found The Ogre Downstairs to be a very enjoyable children’s fantasy that I would recommend to anyone who enjoys Jones’ books (or Edith Nesbit’s or Edward Eager’s, for that matter).

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