The Nest by Kenneth Oppel
If any book should be called Unsettling and Disturbing, this one is a prime candidate. The last third of the tale got not only extremely dark and dangerous, it is also filled with vividly described, horror film worthy scenes and imageries. Expertly done. I probably would have truly loved the entire book if I wasn’t taken out of the narrative flow a number of times when Steve uses highly literary words and phrases that I thought uncharacteristically older than the character’s age and not quite in keeping with the rest of the tone of the very straightforward and effective telling. I was hoping and fearing a truly dark ending and was slightly disappointed (because of the very twisted-minded adult reader in me) and very relieved and pleased that there’s some hope and a lot of growth for both the hero and the reader. And what a complex and admirable hero we have in Steve!
So You Want to Be A Jedi: Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back by Adam Gidwitz, with original concept arts
Really enjoyed much of the book — many of the Jedi lessons are great fun and with the trade-mark Gidwitz caring for a young person’s mind and character. The second person narrative device worked for me and the added extended training segments made me happy. The third person narrative parts about Han & Leia are faithful to the movie but to someone like me who saw the original movie and re-watched it a few times in the past few decades, they can seem a bit bland. I could tell that the imagined audience is actually those who’re young and not exactly familiar with Episode V. Waiting to hear from my 4th & 5th graders of their view.
Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer by Kelly Jones
Definitely a breezy read with some fun bits and pieces. I really like Kelly Jones’ portrayal of Sophie, level-headed, with plenty of normal kid concerns and normal kid courage. Jones included some not-too-heavy-handed tidbits about how others perceive Sophie, being half Mexican American, being viewed as poor, being “presumed” in not-so-flattering ways.
Since my taste runs more toward more saturated kind of fantasy, I wanted the chickens’ powers (and they are amazing powers) to manifest more, stronger, and add more tension to the story. However, I can also see how this can be quite attractive to those who just want their magic to be more like everyday happenings — not too many world-altering encounters.
My narrative device-detector antenna was definitely alert for this one and wish that the letter-writing device had worked all the way through. The really really long, as-it-happens, climatic sections did not work all that well for me: not sure when/where Sophie would have been writing to Agnes in the middle of rescuing the chickens and participating in the Poultry Show (and it is apparent that those letters weren’t written after all the excitement as a report, since Agnes would have known all that had happened and wouldn’t have needed such narration of events.)
Circus Mirandus by Cassie Beasley
For the most part, the story works, and I did care about the main character and what he was hoping for. The ending is the kind that kid readers always want: the young protagonist actually GOT to enter the fantasy realm, rather than learning some precious lessons on how to hold the magic in one’s heart but knowing that “fantasy world” does not quite exist. So, kudos to Beasley on that front. I was hoping that once we learned the back story of the aunt, I would have had more sympathy toward her behavior but she remained a two-dimensional device and not fleshed out character all the way through. Definitely felt that the writing is a bit plain and some details could be trimmed to tighten the pacing, but totally see it appeal to certain young readers.
Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead
How does an author who already won so many accolades to continue pushing herself for such new heights?
This book has no surprising twist ending: magical or SciFi-esque; it has no flashy mystery elements; it is set in an ordinary school with ordinary middle school students — but yet, one cannot stop reading it because we as readers care so much about the interior lives of the characters (three “main” plus the supporting cast). It makes one feel compassion and empathy towards all who behave “well” and who might have some questionable motivation. It also makes readers marvel at the author’s ability to write a “quiet” book that speaks so loudly on the reality of being a young teen who must navigate the treacherous waters of friendship, social dynamics, and power-structure.
The story about a chubby 5th grade boy who is grappling with being the unathletic one in the class is told with a very light and gentle touch: he’s never so troubled by it to be sad, his best friends (who are all fast runners) are all supportive, his teachers do not put him down, even when they try to help him build up his stamina. And his relationship with his parents is loving, albeit full of little conflicts due to his very active mind that is constantly wondering about the world around him and coming up with out-of-the-box ideas.
This is the first of the Rainbow Crow set of high quality contemporary children’s books from China (by the 21st Century publishing company) that I have read and I am definitely impressed: by the author’s understanding of young people’s mindset, by the excellence of the production/design value, and by the publisher’s insistence of offering current stories by Chinese authors to young readers.
Colorful Ravens* “Original Stories in Chinese”* series of 20 titles were published in 2012. I obtained four copies and will report on all of them as soon as I finish each. To read the bilingual plot summary that I made for this book please head over to the Goodreads page.
*My translations for the series names were different from the publisher’s. Corrected on 8/18/2015.
Magyk by Angie Sage
A gentle story of magic and friendship, full of entertaining tidbits for imaginative young readers. Glad that I finally got to read it since the series has been a favorite of many of my students for a while.
Four young readers from Shanghai (ages 13-15) and I spent two weeks together enjoying and analyzing Neil Gaiman’s Newbery winning title The Graveyard Book. The lessons were all conducted in English. We had a lot of fun and here are some of the observations that we made about the book:
(silly names we gave ourselves/each other)
- The author makes it so that the supposedly bad people (the graveyard dead, a witch, a vampire, and a werewolf) turned out to be super nice and caring. It made us reconsider our assumptions to the people around us.
- The author effectively uses verbs and action phrases for inanimate objects to create vivid and poetic imageries: tendrils of fog could insinuate themselves into the hall, the graveyard could keep secrets, and the burnt sun could gaze into the world below.
- We had lots of fun figuring out what Gaiman implies in his text. Silas’ true being is, of course, the most fun to guess: so many clues about what he is without the word* EVER being present in the book. But there are many other things that the readers need to figure out: the characters’ moods, interior thoughts and motivations, etc. In other words, this is a great book for inferences.
- Paradox is another literary device used often by the author. We bookended the course with this paradoxical phrase: “Glorious Tragedy” that Gaiman used to describe what it’s like to be a parent and how The Graveyard Book can be read as a book about the bittersweetness of successful parenting. This phrase could be used especially to frame much of the last part of the book when Nobody Owens grows too old to be contained within the safety of the Graveyard. Isn’t “growing up” also a kind of glorious tragedy? I asked the four young readers to contemplate in what ways that “growing up” is a glorious tragedy.
- Each student wrote me a quick feedback on their individual experience with the book. All were positive and had strong emotional reaction to the events and characters in the book.
- One wrote how they appreciated the many new vocabulary words (Gaiman definitely did NOT shy away from using precise, perfect, but not easy words.)
- They all enjoyed the “guess” work whenever I asked them to infer a particular subtly presented idea.
- One student who never read a single English language book before this class vowed to continue reading books in English!
I had a blast! The students were diligent and after the first couple of days, were lively and contributed a lot. It’s especially rewarding to closely re-read The Graveyard Book and confirm how finely crafted this book truly is, in every aspect!
* SPOILER ALERT — Silas’ identity is revealed after the cover image (for those who have yet to read the book.)
Silas is a vampire.
Avatar, The Last Airbender: The Search by Gene Luen Yang (Vols 1-3)
Artwork by Gurihiru
Lettering by Michael Heisler
My gosh, Gene Yang really is a super fan of the show and the Avatar universe because he totally understands what the fans want. He gives us a satisfying storyline, complete with a cohesive theme of sibling and parent-child relationships, to a long unsolved mystery from the 2005-2008 TV show of one of the beloved characters. (What am I saying, ALL the main characters are beloved! The show was that amazing.) And he gives us new magical beings and great world elements: the Mother of Faces is such a cool creation. Her backstory, tied with Zuko’s mom’s personal history, fits into the Avatar universe seamlessly!
Whenever I watch the show, I am always impressed by how well the show creators did their homework. Every time Chinese writing appears on screen, it is accurate, legible, and usually in perfect and artistic calligraphic form. Dark Horse (the publisher for the GN extensions) did the same: the letter that Zuko’s mom wrote and that we get to read on the background art is in the formal, literary style befitting the imagined time period (China/Asia a few hundred years ago?) And now I am reading the third extended story: Avatar, the Last Airbender: The Rift. It’s all about Toph Beifong (my personal favorite character in the show…) and will apparently bridge her story from the 2005 show to the recent Legend of Korra. Two more volumes to go and another post to follow.
Avatar: The Last Airbender, the Nichelodeon channel animated show from 2005, has been and continues to be really popular with my middle and high school students. (The show was created for even younger viewers.) I got curious and asked random internet users (via facebook, twitter, reddit, FCL, etc.) to fill out a form and tell me whether: “Avatar? OMG — AVATAR is MY LIFE!” or “This is the first time I have ever heard of this show,” and anything in between. Although the respondents can choose from 12 different answers, I decided to consolidate them into four categories: Extreme Love, Positive, Neutral/Negative, and Never heard of/watched the show. Those who filled out the form also shared their demographic information and self-identified as one of the following: Asian or Asian American, White (Hispanic), White (Non-Hispanic), Black (Hispanic), Black (Non-Hispanic), Racially Mixed – part Asian, Racially Mixed – no Asian, Native American, or Other* * I had to take out a few responses (for example, a self-identified “penguin” – Oh, internet, you never fails to amuse me!) As you can see, the responses are really positive, just like those from my students and myself. We are excited about the show, its spin-off Legend of Korra, and are happily reading the Graphic Novels series extending the storyline, and anxiously awaiting the new installments for both Aang, Katara, Zuko, Toph, Sokka storylines and the Korra storyline. My notes on The Search by Gene Luen Yang will be posted tomorrow. If your browser can’t load this embedded chart, click on THIS LINK. I also asked for age ranges but decided to not include that information in the chart.
Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library by Chris Grabenstein
I can easily understand why my 4th grade students have raved about this one: there’s the thrill of watching a complex puzzle being solved, the excitement of exploring new friendship, the coziness of strengthening old friendship, and the novelty of discovering inventions of a high-tech, but still story-filled, library. Plus a little bit of safe scare: facing down and defeating villains that really aren’t that threatening from beginning to end. This is old school children’s mystery fun.
The Marvels by Brian Selznick
In this third installment of a loosely connected (by form, by theme, and by narrative progression) literary trilogy, following the previous two marvelous titles: The Invention of Hugo Cabret and Wonderstruck, Brian Selznick once again pours his artist’s soul and a writer’s heart into the tome and brings readers a moving tale. Much like the other two picture-novels, The Marvels features instant and fast friendship among two young characters, a cross-generational relationship that grows from suspicion and uneasiness to faithful loyalty, and the deep and palpable connection a person can have with history.
I had a grand time looking through the pictures and reading the story and was unbelievably moved (to a whole lot of tears) as the truth of the story of the Marvels family was revealed. And also by the fact that Brian’s portrayal of the gay characters is without additional fanfare: subtle and yet you can’t misinterpret.
I imagine the book an instant hit with all my students when it’s published on September 15! Can’t wait to hear their reactions!
One of the most delightful books I’ve encountered!
So much of it is sparkling, like gems — the humor, the humanity, the friendship, and even the heartaches. And there’s a special twinkle of absurdity: the squirrel poet, the hysterical blindness, the kind but weird neighbor with the “living” painting, etc.
Read this two years ago but never got to put the book note up and so much of the book is still vivid in my mind. Indeed a great Newbery choice!
George, by Alex Gino
Alex Gino achieved something extraordinary in giving the world GEORGE: they (Gino’s choice of pronoun) created an authentic main character struggling with gender identity (she, George) and a credible scenario with an appealing plotline that speaks directly and honestly to young readers in 3rd, 4th, or 5th grade. No extra unnecessary drama, just realistic reactions from those around George/Melissa. Very pleased to have read this short middle grade fiction.
by Susan Beth Pfeffer
I went into this book with a lot of trepidation — believe it or not, drastic gravitational changes to Earth by the altered distance between Moon and Earth was one of my all time environmental fears, probably from when I used to watch Twilight Zone as a kid. Pfeffer managed to tell the story with a pretty tame disaster setting: the town our heroine lived in has faced much milder impacts and although you hear about quite a bit of “the rest of world is disappearing and people have died everywhere,” you only experience her personal (and none of the immediate family members) losses a few times and the heroine’s reactions do not make the readers feel completely devastated. I thoroughly appreciated the author’s ability to show the shifting in priorities, attitudes, and family relationships as the story progresses.
This is a survival story that I can feel quite comfortable giving to 5th or 6th grade students, especially those who enjoy Hatchet.
by Diana Wynne Jones
I haven’t read a Diana Wynne Jones for a while and am so glad that I picked this one up. So enjoyed her storytelling tones: very traditionally British, witty, childlike but with age-old wisdom. The storyline plays off of the “family feud/Romeo & Juliet” trope, set in Italy, nonetheless. Of course, the magic and scenes are all so cool, too. One can really see how other writers like JK Rowling, Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, etc., all came from this same magical storytelling tradition. With this one done, I have finished the first four books in the Chrestomanci series. There are two more novels and a collection of short stories to be done — looking forward to those treats!
by Joelle Charbonneau
I like this book partly because some of my students really took to the series and I can see why they love it. The different stages of the testing, the unflinching gruesomeness of certain deaths/acts, and the still unclear intentions of the Officials (and of some other characters’) at the end of the book (with a cliffhanger that makes you really want to read the next book) all make this a compelling and fast read. However, much of the book also feels quite derivative and pieced together from many other, better penned stories: Ender’s Game, Fahrenheit 451, The Enemy, or Battle Royale, that it probably will not be my top recommendation to some other students.
by Wendy Mass
A delightful concoction of implausible coincidences, innocent spying, interconnectivity, and childish pleasures. I can’t quite stomach the excessive amount of sweets being served as main meals but I imagine my younger self would have been quite fascinated. The candy making process and rules are highly entertaining, and perhaps even informative! As most Wendy Mass books, this one is all about how to appreciate one’s life and accept one’s lot while still strive to expand understanding of the world around. No wonder my students love it so much and it appeals to both genders and mystery and friendship book lovers.
by Margi Preus
One of my favorite folk tales is East of the Sun, West of the Moon, and many children’s books have been inspired by this tale, such as East by Edith Pattou, a beautiful fantasy reimagining. I enjoyed reading this book by Preus, but due to my own preferences for “real” magic and fantasy, I found myself unsatisfied by the dreams/magical realism/faux fantasy elements in what is really a tale of immigration. That said, I appreciated greatly Preus’ ability to give deep and complex emotions to Astri and her deft hand at portraying vivid landscapes and adventures.
adapted and retold by Amy Ehrlich
illustrated by Daniel Nevins
Ehrlich’s talent as a storyteller is evident in the book. She picked and chose powerful details. She then tailored them for young readers with simple and easily understandable words and sentences. The immediacy is almost shocking. Instead of the tales feeling distanced by archaic language or complex sentence structures as often found in the translated versions of the Bible (or Torah), a young reader can digest these stories quickly and see the pictures clearly (also with the help of the colorful paintings.)
I think that’s why I had such conflicting reactions to this gorgeously illustrated religious text. On the one hand, I really admire Ehrlich’s storytelling and distilling skills. On the other hand, all these immediacies bring to sharp relief the brutal and the morally questionable events and behaviors in these stories. Being a non-believer of any religion myself, it was really hard for me to understand how anyone could “fall for” this inconsistent, arrogant, vengeful, deceptive, conspiring, and power-hungry GOD. Some of the lessons that I got from the book are
- Since GOD is so fickle, but so all powerful, you’d better always do as told.
- One’s relationship with GOD is and should be completely based on Fear.
- All human inter-actions are based on Jealousy and sometimes bad deeds are richly rewarded.
- Women are to be neglected and are of no or little importance except in bearing sons for the chosen people.
- The chosen ones should endeavor in eliminating the non-believers and those who believe in other Gods.
So, I am left with a huge question: Why, in the year 2013, we need such a retelling of these brutal and morally antiquated tales to children which do not contain in the text itself explanatory notes or questions that encourage discussions for the family? Especially since this is a trade book and conceivably could be read and shared with people who are not of the Jewish faith. (There are indeed back matters with notes and an introduction but I really would have liked to see a more philosophical approach to these tales than the current shape it is in.)