Category Archives: Reviewing

Two School Stories, Sophia McDougall’s Mars Evacuees and Robin Stevens’ Murder is Bad Manners

Two new British imports, Sophia McDougall’s Mars Evacuees and Robin Stevens’ Murder is Bad Manners, offer middle grade readers clever young women, wry and witty authorial voices, hapeless teachers, excellent sidekicks, well-developed settings, and page-turning plots. Both are also just a lot of fun.

Mars Evacuees opens at the Muckling Abbott School for Girls where twelve year-old Alice Dare learns that she is one of a handful of kids being evacuated to Mars. This is most likely because of her mother, a celebrity military pilot in Earth’s war with the Morror, invisible aliens who have caused catastrophic climate change. Harkening back to those children who were evacuated from London during WW II, Alice and a similar group head off to Mars. Overseen by military and scientist adults, the children are divided into age cohorts and tended to and taught by some surprisingly personable robots — Alice’s is the Goldfish. She acquires friends: smart and quirky Josephine, good-hearted Carl, and his sweet little brother Noel. When all the adults mysteriously disappear, after coping with some serious Lord of the Flies situations, the four head off to find help, encountering a young Morror along the way. There is an Indiana Jones quality to the story — the way the kids barrel into one over-the-top challenge after another, figure them out, and carry on. While there is tension and you have no idea what will happen, Alice’s voice is so determined and charming, that you are just sure they will survive. And they do and more than that — they save the..well, world isn’t quite the right word…the world and other stuff, shall we say. It is great fun! (Hmm…writing this makes me think this will be my next read aloud.)

Whereas Mars Evacuees is set mostly on a futuristic Mars, Murder is Bad Mannerswinner of the 2015 Waterstone’s Children’s Book Prizeis set firmly in a 20th century past. It is 1934 and 8th grader Hazel Wong has been sent from her Hong Kong home to the very English Deepdean School for Girls where she encounters the lively Daisy Wells. After a teacher literally drops dead, Daisy organizes the Wells & Wong Detective Society, determined to find the murderer. The timid Watson-like Hazel writes of their efforts, fretting as Daisy, very much the Sherlock of the two (more in terms of leadership as she is far more socially apt than the adult detective), brazenly determines just what they have to do. A diverse protagonist, a school story, a cozy mystery in the vein of Christie, a friendship narrative, and one with some interesting touches regarding race and prejudice, Murder is Bad Manners is all in all a delight. The first in the Wells and Wong series, I can’t wait to read the next one.

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Coming Soon: Laura Amy Schlitz’s The Hired Girl (Cover Reveal and More)

Fans of Laura Amy Schlitz are a patient bunch. We know that it takes time for her beautiful, unique, and complex stories to come into being. Happily, the wait is always worth it. Such is the case for The Hired Girl, out this fall from Candlewick Press. In the form of a diary, the entries are written by the only daughter of a hardscrabble Pennsylvanian widower farmer with four sons. Eager to read, write, learn, and gain knowledge of every sort, 14 year-old Joan Skraggs, when we first meet her, has a brutal life and it seems as if there will be no way out for her.  Yet being resourceful and clever, Joan …well, you will need to read the book to find out what happens. As you would expect from Schlitz, the language is lush, full of vivid sensory details and emotional resonance. I was immersed in Joan’s 1911 experiences, anxiously following her through pain, happiness, despair, love, humor, knowledge, consideration of class, and serious contemplation of faith. Something you all have to look forward to this fall. Until then, here is the lovely cover. Thanks, Candlewick, for inviting me to do this (my first cover reveal!).

HiredGirl_Cover

 

 

 

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Coming Soon: Rebecca Stead’s Goodbye Stranger

Rebecca Stead started out quietly in 2007 with her first book for children, First Light. Her second, When You Reach Me, started out quietly too, but the decibels went up when it won the 2010 Newbery award. These were followed by Liar & Spy,  also a solidly middle grade title that made a loud splash by winning the 2012 Guardian Children’s Book prize. With three fine books under her belt, the question is: what will the next one be like?  My answer (in a vague spoiler-safe way):  just as good as the previous ones.  Coming out this summer, Goodbye Stranger is everything you’d expect from this smart, profound, and thoughtful writer.

It is apt that I am writing this just before Valentine’s Day as it is love in its numerous manifestations that is central to this novel. There is the love of friendship, the main one here between three 7th grade girls who have been close and committed friends since very young, vowing never to fight. There is sibling love as shown between the main character Bridge and her older brother. There is the love between parent and child that comes wafting through in Bridge’s memories of her childhood near-death after a horrific accident. There is the love between grandparent and grandchild expressed through unsent letters by Sherm, a 7th grade classmates of the girls. And there is romantic love, something that the girls, Sherm, and their classmates are beginning to explore and consider. How do you know about this sort of love? the young people wonder. What does it mean to like someone? As a friend? As something else? How do you show your interest? Or not? What happens when feelings change? After a few months or after many years? Stead doesn’t so much provide answers as avenues to consider these. Her characters make good and bad choices. They go too far at times. Or not far enough.

Despite its slim appearance, this is a weighty novel. Challenging and complicated issues swirl in it. Some are timeless and some may seem more current, say the tricky way relatively innocent flirtations can, through cell phones with cameras, become something far more difficult. The way jealousy can cause people to do hard-to-understand mean things. That one pair may wait for their first kiss for years while the another might be exploring sexuality sooner. How certain friends and family members can stay the same while others change.

Elegantly crafted and written, this is a book to savor. Stead fans have quite a treat to look forward to this August.

 

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Kate Saunder’s Five Children on the Western Front

I learned about this title when it was shortlisted for the UK Costa Award and immediately ordered it from the UK. I’ve now read it and here is what I wrote on goodreads:

I’m a fan of Nesbit’s original FIVE CHILDREN AND IT, but I’m not sure it is necessary to be familiar with it to enjoy this intriguing and elegantly crafted sequel.

Nine years after their last meeting with the Psammead (a grumpy sandfairy), he suddenly shows up in his old gravelpit. Cyril, Robert, Anthea, and Jane are now young adults, the Lamb an active eleven-year-old, and there is now one more — Edith, age nine. World War I has begun and is the center of this tale. It turns out that their old magical friend has a problematic history that he needs to resolve, most of all to feel some sort of regret. The young people’s involvement with the war twists around the Psammead’s not-so-pleasant behaviors of his far-off past in ways moving, exciting, and sometimes sad. There are references to their earlier experiences, the nature of wishing, and how to consider the past. Beautifully written, this is a tale that I hope sees publication and promotion in the US.

 

 

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X: A Novel by Ilyasah Shabazz with Kekla Magoon

Fictionalized history is a tricky business. On the one hand, the past is a wealth of fascinating material for use in creating imaginary worlds. On the other hand, those doing that creating can’t go wild, they must honor the historical truth the best they can, especially when they are writing about real people from not so long ago. And so we come to X: A Novel, a gritty and glorious rendering of Malcolm X’s youth by his daughter Ilyasah Shabazz with Kekla Magoon.

Friends tell me trouble’s coming. I ease out of the restaurant onto sidewalk, gun in my pocket. Hand in there, too, keeping it close for good measure. I gotta get back to my pad, and quick now. One foot in front of the other. Keep my head down, hope no one sees me.

These first tense sentences introduce readers to the young Malcolm. It is 1945 Harlem and he is clearly in trouble. Big trouble. By the next page we know more about the trouble and more about Malcolm. He’s shrewd, clever, and at this moment very scared, rueing the direction his young life has taken. And then we are taken back to 1940 Lansing, Michigan where we see a younger Malcolm setting out on his new life. The novel goes on, fluidly moving back and forth in time, filling in elements of the young man’s history. There is family: a tragically lost father, sad mother, and supportive siblings. After a childhood of profound poverty,  Malcolm leaves for the city, exploring exciting and darker places, girls, drugs — a very different world from that of his childhood. Settings are remarkably evoked, the dire poverty and horrific racism of Lansing swirling in and out amidst the jittery jazz environments of Boston and New York. Shabazz and Magoon do a remarkable job generating atmosphere, balancing family love in the face of dire circumstances against the pulsating energy of a self-assured young man swaggering through Harlem streets in a fine zoot suit and a conk. At times the language is blunt and challenging, appropriately in this fierce rendering of  the youthful development of an iconic figure of America’s past.

The story of a reckless young man finding himself, X: A Novel is historical fiction at its best — an artistic exploration of a part of a renowned person’s life , one that stays true to his time and place.

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Jen Bryant and Melissa Sweet’s The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus

I love words and I love art that plays with words. ABC books, abecedarian novels, lipograms, everything and anything that plays with the art of words is art right up my alley. And so having adored Jen Bryant and Melissa Sweet’s glorious Caldecott Honor A River of Words, I was agog with anticipation waiting for their latest, The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus.  And now that I’ve seen it, let me tell you — it was worth the wait.  Bryant again captures the essence of a complicated individual in spare and beautifully crafted text. Having now written a book about a real person myself, I’m all the more in awe of anyone who takes on a full biography for children, managing to economically pull out just what is needed about that person’s life for young readers to best appreciate his accomplishments. Roget was clearly one brilliant man who loved all sorts of things, words among them. Bryan elegantly presents Roget’s lifelong passion for word lists as well as much more. She communicates beautifully just why such lists are so worthwhile by having Roget answer his mother’s questions with a single word and then mull over what better ones there might be. She suggests the darker parts of his life, but mostly she shows readers a person who was a passionate learner, passionate creator of word lists, and someone who figured out how to put those passions together to create a unique and wonderful book, the thesaurus.

Words, words, letters and numbers and then more words float through this book. In the text, through the perfect design and, most wonderfully, through Melissa Sweet’s art. These marks of language are everywhere in this book, those of Roget’s lists dance across one page, march down another, and flit throughout in magical ways.  On every page, Sweet’s assemblages of paintings and collage are an exuberant delight; the realistic paintings celebrating different parts of Roget’s life are often layered one above another; here’s one with an elegant file folder border; there’s another with paper scraps of lists peeking out behind it. Page after page words drift through, around and in the paintings via speech bubbles, book covers, cards, signs, maps, labels, diagrams, and more. Color and texture are used to brilliant effect, at times repeating within and without an illustration. Most of all it is Sweet’s playful use of language through her lovely realistic watercolors of Roget and his experiences, her glorious assemblages of meaning, that bring Bryan’s words, Roget’s life, and this book to an ethereal place of pleasure.

All in all, The Right Word is a

spectacular

brilliant

marvelous

superb

magnificent

dazzling

work of art.

 

 

 

 

 

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Christopher Paul Curtis’s The Madman of Piney Woods

I was on the 2008 Newbery Committee that honored Christopher Paul Curtis’s Elijah of Buxton so I was both eager and nervous to read its companion, The Madman of Piney Woods.  Eager because I so admired the first book, and nervous because you just never know. Happily, I was delighted with the book and those at the Horn Book  Magazine where I reviewed it agreed with me, starring it. I concluded my review (which you can read here) thus: “Woven throughout this profoundly moving yet also at times very funny novel are themes of family, friendship, community, compassion, and, fittingly, the power of words.”

 

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