Friday, December 28, 2012

Dodger and Me, by Jordan Sonnenblick

Title:  Dodger and Me
Author:  Jordan Sonnenblick
Publisher:  Feiwel & Friends
Year:  2008
Pages: 176
Genre:  Fantasy
Themes:  Friendship, Family, Overcoming Fear
Age Range:  3rd-6th Grade

Willie Ryan was not exactly the happiest fifth grader in the world.  He had an overprotective mother, an annoying little sister, his best (and only) friend moved away, the weird English girl from his class wouldn't leave him alone, and he hadn't made a hit for his baseball team all season.  It seemed like nothing he did worked out the way he hoped.  After yet another humiliating performance on the baseball field, Willie decides to take a shortcut through the woods to avoid seeing the other kids.  In a clearing he spies a McDonalds bag someone left on the ground.  When he goes and picks it up, he discovers that it is really a magic lamp in disguise, and when he runs his hand over it out pops...a large blue chimpanzee named Dodger.  Not exactly what you were expecting, huh?  Thus begins an unexpected romp through the familiar three-wishes territory, as Dodger tries to help Willie solve his problems-mostly by seemingly making things worse!

This is a cute book, though there is nothing hugely original about it.  Despite the "genie" being a large blue ape, the plot is very familiar-lonely, awkward boy gets magical intervention to solve his problems, which goes awry and forces him to realize that he can solve his own problems and/or learn to appreciate the things he thought he wanted to change about people.  Of course, if you are a third grader who has never read or seen any of the other variations on this theme (or the movie Aladdin), then it would feel original to you.

What makes this book really enjoyable, even if the plot is predictable for the more mature reader, is the way that the character of Dodger is written.  He is funny and sweet and crazy and slightly sarcastic, and there are a few things he says that probably only a mature reader would get.  I always appreciate it when authors throw the parents and teachers who also read their books a little bone-sort of like the "wink, wink" moments on Sesame Street that are meant for the parents who are watching with their kids.  Really, all of the characters are pretty well-written, and I think that a lot of students would feel a connection with Willie and his overprotective mother and insecurity.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Witness, by Karen Hesse

Title:  Witness
Author:  Karen Hesse
Publisher:  Scholastic
Year:  2003
Pages:  161
Genre:  Historical Fiction
Themes:  Racism, Friendship, Social Justice
Age Range:  4th-8th Grade

Summary: (from Goodreads)
The story takes place in a small Vermont town in the year 1924, revealing the devastating impact of the Ku Klux Klan on this pastoral, insular community. At the heart of the tale are two motherless girls who come to the attention of the newly formed Klan: 12-year-old Leanora Sutter, who is black, and 6-year-old Esther Hirsch, who is Jewish. 
Hesse tells her story, which is based on real events, through the eyes of 11 different characters. Each point of view is expressed in poetic form, but with a stark clarity of difference that makes the voices unique and identifiable. There is a fire-and-brimstone preacher whose sermons reveal him as a zealot and whose actions brand him as a hypocrite. There is a middle-aged farm woman named Sara who takes Esther under her wing despite the warnings of her neighbors, trying to help the child understand why the Klan has marked her and her widowed father as targets for their hatred. Esther's only other friend is Leanora, who is about to learn some harsh lessons on tolerance and hatred herself at the hands of the Klan. And linking them all together is 18-year-old Merlin Van Tornhout, a young man struggling to fit in with the adult world and determine for himself the difference between right and wrong. The remaining characters who circle the periphery of this core group reflect the various mind-sets and biases that were common during this era of fear and persecution, even in a setting as bucolic as the Vermont countryside.

This book is a gem, an example of high-quality writing for children at its finest.  This book details a pre-civil rights era America, and examines race and racial inequity not with the deep South as its backdrop, but with the rural Vermont countryside.  One of the myths that northern Americans have told themselves for years is that things were only really bad for blacks and other minorities in the south, but as Hesse clearly demonstrates that was never true.  We may not have had Jim Crow laws on the books north of the Mason Dixon Line, but that doesn't mean that out communities didn't struggle with issues of race and discrimination.

The content is not always easy to read, and there are a few of what I call "grown up" words in there, but mature 4th and 5th readers with the guidance of a teacher or parent could have some really interesting discussions about what life was like for Leanora and Esther-though there will definitely need to be some front-loading of historical context, since the novel is long on feeling and short on exposition.  That said, older students could read the novel either as a a reader or an author-the text structure is unique, free verse is something that many of them won't have a lot of experience with, and there is a lot of room for students to interpret what they are reading and to discuss character traits and character change over the course of the book.  The minister eventually ends up targeted by the clan himself, poor Marvin struggles with cultural expectations and what he knows is right, and the girls have such an innocence about them at the beginning that is truly tested through the events of the story.  Hesse has once again given us a moving, heartfelt book about a tough to talk about issue.

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Magic Thief, by Sarah Prineas

Title:  The Magic Thief
Author:  Sarah Prineas
Publisher:  Harper Collins
Year:  2008
Pages:  422
Genre:  Fantasy
Themes:  Adventure, Belonging, Magic
Age Range:  3rd-6th Grade

Summary:  (from Goodreads)
In a city that runs on a dwindling supply of magic, a young boy is drawn into a life of wizardry and adventure. Conn should have dropped dead the day he picked Nevery's pocket and touched the wizard's locus magicalicus, a stone used to focus magic and work spells. But for some reason he did not. Nevery finds that interesting, and he takes Conn as his apprentice on the provision that the boy find a locus stone of his own. But Conn has little time to search for his stone between wizard lessons and helping Nevery discover who or what is stealing the city of Wellmet's magic

Being the fantasy lover that I am, I fully expected to enjoy this book, and I was not disappointed.  In the magical city of Wellmet, where you live determines almost everything about you.  People who live in the Twilight are destined to be poor and live their lives scrambling to survive.  Citizens of Sunrise are the wealthy and privileged of the city.  Conn, the main character, is from the Twilight area of the city, making his living by picking locks and pockets.  An orphan, Conn is very skilled at taking care of himself-until he meets the wizard Nevery.  Suddenly he is thrown into situations that his life has not prepared him for-a wizard's apprentice, in school, meeting the most powerful people in the city.  In Conn, Prineas has created a character  of incredibly honesty and heart.  Once he realizes that the magic is in danger, he thinks nothing of his own safety.  And while he does not always tell the whole truth, he never tells a lie, even when it would be expedient to do so.

There is only a small amount of backstory given for the way that magic and the city are connected, but it is enough that the reader can fully appreciate the plot without feeling like there are holes in reason or logic.  Even fantasy novels have their own internal rules, and the world that Prineas has created is at once familiar and new, and she takes old ideas about magic from other fantasy writers and makes them her own.  As seems to be the norm these days, especially with fantasy and science fiction novels, this is the beginning of a series, of which there are currently three.  I'd recommend them for a classroom library for fluent readers ages 8 to 12.