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/Illustrator: Faith Erin Hicks
My rating: 4 of 5
In a tale as old as boarding school accepting scholarship students, Jun enters the prestigious (read “stuffy”) Ellsmere Academy on the merits of her academic achievement alone. Not surprisingly, she runs into just the sort of problems you’d expect–snotty rich kids, uncomfortable uniforms, bullying. At least she excels at the school part and she’s not so concerned about making lots of friends. Unexpectedly though, Jun and her roommate Cassie swiftly become fast friends in spite of their distinctly different personalities. And together, the two friends determine to make it through the year at Ellsmere regardless of the problems that get thrown their way.
I’ve never really read much Faith Erin Hicks, but I was pleasantly surprised with what I found in The War at Ellsmere. As mentioned above, the plot isn’t anything particularly outstanding: poor kid, rich school, bullies, rivalry, the one friend who sticks around no matter what. Pretty standard stuff. But what Hicks does with these typical plot elements is pretty spectacular, actually. The art is bold and expressive, which definitely helps. But where she excels the most, I think, is in crafting believable, interesting characters that the reader enjoys and empathizes with. Jun and Cassie are definitely two such characters, and their interactions totally carry the story. On a side note, the touch of magical realism thrown in at the end was . . . interesting. It worked with the story, but as with Larson’s Mercury, it was surprising and difficult to mesh with the rest of the graphic novel. Still, for those who enjoy a high-school graphic novel with great characters, The War at Ellsmere is definitely on my list of recommendations.
Author/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.
Author: Richard Peck
My rating: 4 of 5
Blossom Culp, vol. 4
The year is 1914, and Blossom and Alexander are in their freshman year of high school. Things are beginning to change–like the popular girls’ crushing on Alexander, his newfound obsession with getting into the elite high-school fraternity, or the new suffragette history teacher who’s bent on educating the freshmen about ancient Egypt. Some things never change though–like Blossom’s spunkiness, Alexander’s complete disavowal of his ability to interact with spirits, and Blossom’s mother’s sticky fingers. So when an ancient Egyptian relic turns up in Blossom’s mother’s pocket, naturally Blossom gets interested. And when the ghost (ka, whatever) of an ancient Egyptian princess demands Blossom’s help, well, of course she’s got to get Alexander involved, though she’ll have a time and a half dragging him away from the miseries of his fraternity initiation. Well, while she’s at it, she might as well make the initiation a bit more interesting, too. . . .
Richard Peck’s books are superb, and I think the ones set in Illinois and thereabouts around the turn of the century are some of the best. He has such a feel for the atmosphere of the time, making it alive rather than stuffy and historical. Plus, these are some of the most absurdly funny books I’ve ever read. Blossom Culp and the Sleep of Death is all of that and more. Blossom has got to be one of the most amusing and lovable characters ever–while being someone who’d probably drive me nuts if I actually met her. Scruffy, saucy, and smart as can be–that’s Blossom. In this particular story, seeing her and Alexander growing up from children into young adults is really interesting and funny and kind of cute as well. The inclusion of spirits and historical (for Blossom as well as for the reader) mystery is classic for this series, but bringing in an Egyptian princess is something else. It works though, oddly enough. There’s enough historical detail to make it credible without feeling forced. And the combination of eerie mystery and absurd humor is perfect. For any readers upper elementary and older who enjoy a humorous historical story, Blossom Culp and the Sleep of Death is definitely recommended whether you’ve read the other books in the series or not.
Author: Brandon Varnell
Illustrator: Kirsten Moody
American Kitsune, vol. 1
My rating: 3.5 of 5
Warning: Mature Audience
Kevin Swift is what most folks would call a good guy–decent grades, athletic, responsible enough to live on his own while his mom’s away on work, but with enough of a geeky (even otaku) side to not be a total square. Poor guy really does have some of the worst luck though, or maybe he just has some unfortunate weaknesses. Like his soft spot for small, furry animals. Or his inability to talk to girls (including his crush/childhood friend Lindsay) without blushing and stammering, insane nosebleeding, and possibly passing out. Unfortunate, and likely to get worse when in an act of kindness Kevin brings home an injured little fox . . . that has two tails and a remarkable healing ability. Because the next day, in place of the adorable little fox he finds a naked, gorgeous young woman by the name of Lillian who proudly declares herself a kitsune–and his mate. Poor Kevin!
Having already read the second volume of this hilarious series, A Fox’s Tail, I was definitely looking forward to enjoying the first volume, which I did. A Fox’s Love is an amusing American take on the Japanese ecchi shounen romcom (think stories like To LOVE-Ru and Rosario + Vampire). It definitely follows in the footsteps of these stories, complete with hapless but relatively normal protagonist, improbably sexy and clingy female, tons of humor, and at least an equal part ecchiness and fanservice. Not to mention lots of fantastic references to anime, manga, games, and other geeky stuff. The flow of the writing fits the story very well, having the easy-to-read light novel sort of feel while still being distinctly American in tone. I also love that, while the story obviously references lots of other stories, sometimes even parodying them, it never loses itself; Kevin and Lillian are always very distinctive characters, however improbably those characters may be. And that very improbability is a lot of what makes the story so very funny. That and the various manga/anime tropes and fourth-wall-breaking that get thrown in. A negative (for me; others might find it a positive) is that this volume is very full of fanservice, some of it kind-of explicit–which is kind of promised on the cover, so no surprises there. Just be aware of that going in. One final note is that Kirsten Moody’s accompanying artwork is fantastic, accentuating the light-novel style of the story beautifully while presenting the characters in a way that is very consistent with how they are shown in the story. On the whole, I think that for those who enjoy stories like To LOVE-Ru and Rosario + Vampire, A Fox’s Love is a very amusing and enjoyable venture into this sort of story in an American, slightly parody-like flavor.
Note: I received a free review copy of this book from the author, which in no way alters the contents of this review.
Author: Madoka Harumi/Translators: Chelsea Inaba & Yoshino Kazuki
My rating: 4 of 5
With her weak body and her inability to stand much sunlight, Itsuko has always stood a bit apart, sitting out of PE and carrying a parasol around to block the sunshine. Certainly, it’s a surprise when one of the most popular boys in her middle school begins showing an interest in her, going so far as to ask her out to the summer festival. Odder still, that it would be Miyano, a boy notorious for only showing up for school when the sun is shining. Talk about opposites! But when Miyano finds a cute little teddy-bear charm by the notice board, Itsuko somehow finds herself dragged along on his mad hunt to find its owner in spite of herself.
Whether it Rains or Shines Tomorrow is such a cute, ordinary sort of story that it’s actually quite delightful in a way. It’s a story about normal, modern-day Japanese kids in a suburban sort of environment just living their daily life, sorting out problems with friends, handling problems, falling in love, and dealing with all those crazy emotions that are just part of life at that age. Itsuko, Miyano, and Itsuko’s friend Mana are all fairly ordinary kids although their personalities are anything but dull. They’re easy to relate to, which is a good thing. The plot is nothing crazy, just a shoujo slice-of-life romance/drama, but it’s cute. It’s nice to see a light novella in a shoujo style; there’s such a preponderance of seinen light novels on the market it seems (which isn’t a bad thing, but variety’s nice). My one complaint is that the whole “sun allergy” thing was a bit weird . . . but it mostly worked pretty well. Whether it Rains or Shines Tomorrow is a cute, short light novella that would be a fun read for readers in middle school and up.
Note: As far as I know, this light novella is currently only available digitally (I’m pretty sure it’s available on iTunes and Google Play). For more great information, see the review at englishlightnovels.com.
Author: Louis Sachar
My rating: 4 of 5
It all started when Marshall and Tamaya took a “short cut” through the woods to avoid a bully. Or maybe it was before that, when a scientist caught up in inventing a new, renewable fuel source came up with the idea of Biolene, a genetically engineered microorganism that reproduces every thirty-six minutes. Whatever the case, the moment Tamaya stuck her hand in a muddy puddle covered in strange fuzzy stuff and threw that mud in the face of Chad–the bully who had tracked them down in the woods in spite of their precautions–she became part of a historic disaster on a grand scale. And just maybe, she became the girl who saved the world.
Louis Sachar’s writing is always a treat to read, with his easy humor and readable text. Fuzzy Mud was all of that, but it took a more intense perspective than most of his books. It was excellent. The characters were enjoyable, and they prompted the reader to take another look at bullying–from both sides of the situation. Furthermore, the entire plot was crafted in such a way as to raise ecological awareness about a number of hot topics: fuel shortages, overpopulation, and genetic engineering to name a few. As I said, the actual plot writing was intense, but also middle-grade appropriate. I really enjoyed the way notes from the legal proceedings over Biolene were interspersed within the text in a way almost reminiscent of that used in Carrie. Furthermore, the addition of mathematical equations scattered throughout to demonstrate how quickly one microorganism can become thousands really served to add a great sense of tension, as did the petri-dish illustrations at each chapter header–complete with samples doubling each chapter and spilling over the page! I think for middle-grade and older readers who enjoy an intense but thoughtful biological/ecological thriller, Fuzzy Mud is an excellent choice.