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.