Saturday, July 27, 2013

Secrets of the Cicada Summer, Andrea Beaty

Title:  Secrets of the Cicada Summer
Author:  Andrea Beaty
Publisher:  Harry N. Abrams
Year: 2008
Pages: 176
Genre: Mystery
Themes: Overcoming Loss
Age Range:  3rd-5th Grade

Lily is invisible-not because people can't see her.  Anyone who was looking would see her.  But no one looks her way, not anymore.  After the death of her brother, Pete, Lily retreats into silence, and over time people stop paying attention to the girl who never speaks.  And that is just fine with her.  Lily has a secret, one that she is sure will make her father stop loving her if he finds out.  No one sees through her silence, until Tinny comes to town.

Tinny, 12 years old like Lily,is a rough customer.  As soon as she shows up in the small town of Olena, IL to stay with her Aunt Fern, bad things start happening.  Candy starts disappearing from Aunt Fern's store, and then money.  Tinny blames it on Lily, who can't defend herself without admitting she could talk all along. And then, a mean looking man shows up looking for Tinny.  Lily has to uncover the mystery and save Tinny-but it will mean confronting not just the mean looking man, but her own grief and guilt.

Cicada Summer is a sweet story about a little girl dealing with some pretty serious issues.  Her mother died when she was too young to remember her, and her brother died in a tragic accident when he was 12 and she was 10.  Despite the loving care of her father and kindly Fern, she has so much guilt over her part in her brother's death that she tries her best to disappear-staying silent, sidling around town just out of everyone's vision.  But this makes it easier for her to learn things that grown-ups might not want a child to hear, which in turn helps her become a real life detective, like her idol Nancy Drew.

 The story goes back and forth between present day and the time period right before and after Pete's death.  Beaty uses the flashbacks to develop Pete's character, so that the emotional impact is heightened when the truth of what happened to him is finally revealed.  By then the reader has also come to care about not just Lily, but her father and Fern and even that rough ol' Tinny.  The narrative structure makes a good model for early writers.  They can practice writing their own story that includes both flashback and present day.

The one criticism I have is that the resolution of the mystery happens very quickly, in just a few pages.  What was meant to be a suspenseful scene with the mean looking man cornering the two girls ended up feeling a little bit rushed to me, lacking in detail.  Perhaps that was to keep it from being too scary for the intended audience, and it may be my reading it as an adult that makes it seem that way, but it did feel like a whole lot of build-up for a pretty slim ending.  But I think this book could be used as a read aloud, in guided reading, or as part of a classroom library.

Teacher Resources: Lesson Plans
Wild Geese Guides Discussion Guide

Friday, July 26, 2013

The Name of This Book is Secret, Pseudonymous Bosch

Title:  The Name of This Book is Secret
Author:  Pseudonymous Bosch
Publisher:  Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Year:  2007
Pages:  364
Genre:  Fantasy
Themes:  Good vs. Evil, Friendship
Age Range:  3rd-6th Grade

Summary:  from Goodreads
Warning: this description has not been authorized by Pseudonymous Bosch. As much as he'd love to sing the praises of his book (he is very vain), he wouldn't want you to hear about his brave 11-year old heroes, Cass and Max-Ernest. Or about how a mysterious box of vials, the Symphony of Smells, sends them on the trail of a magician who has vanished under strange (and stinky) circumstances. And he certainly wouldn't want you to know about the hair-raising adventures that follow and the nefarious villains they face. You see, not only is the name of this book secret, the story inside is, too. For it concerns a secret. A Big Secret.

This book felt very much in tone like the A Series of Unfortunate Events books.  There is a presumably adult narrator who continually breaks the "fourth wall" (though maybe that's only a television and movie reference) to speak directly to the reader.  Throughout the book the narrator makes sure the reader understands that reading the book puts them at risk of danger, and purports to have changed the names and places as much as possible to "protect" us from the deadly secrets contained in the book.  It's a cute literary device, if not terribly original.

The story itself is well done.  Cass and Max Earnest are characters I think kids could relate to.  Cass is so traumatized by her father's sudden death that she begins to seriously prepare for any emergency that may befall her and her loved one, going so far as to carry a backpack full of survival supplies everywhere she goes.  Most kids may not have done that, but I think that child readers would be able to empathize with the fear of losing a parent.  Max Earnest has a pretty obvious case of ADHD, though it is never called that in the book.  Either way, kids will recognize a part of him in themselves, or in some other kid they know (possibly the one that sits next to them at school and won't stop talking!). I thought that the specific magical elements were interesting...the idea that using smell to do magic is one I don't remember reading before.  There are some interesting Egyptology references, and the villains are deliciously villainy, as only the best caricature of an evil person could be.  This is the first in a series, which is always helpful if you are trying to hook a young reader, though the story does have a definite ending, and could be read as a stand alone.  I think this is a good book to have available in your classroom library for independent reading, which is how we use it at the school where I teach.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Trash, Andy Mulligan

Title:  Trash
Author:  Andy Mulligan
Publisher:  David Fickling Books
Year:  2010
Pages:  229
Genre:  Realistic Fiction
Themes:  Poverty, Oppression, Friendship
Age Range:  6th-9th Grade

Summary:  from Goodreads
In an unnamed Third World country, in the not-so-distant future, three “dumpsite boys” make a living picking through the mountains of garbage on the outskirts of a large city. 
One unlucky-lucky day, Raphael finds something very special and very mysterious. So mysterious that he decides to keep it, even when the city police offer a handsome reward for its return. That decision brings with it terrifying consequences, and soon the dumpsite boys must use all of their cunning and courage to stay ahead of their pursuers. It’s up to Raphael, Gardo, and Rat—boys who have no education, no parents, no homes, and no money—to solve the mystery and right a terrible wrong.

Ok, I'll admit it, I'm conflicted about this book.  As an adult reader I liked it, but I am a little unsure about how appropriate it is for the target audience.   Mulligan addresses issues of poverty, child labor, and government corruption in all its gory detail...he does such an excellent job describing the bone-crushing poverty, the disgusting conditions in the dump, and the despicable way that the boys are treated that I felt a little bit like I needed to shower after reading.  But I think maybe it is a little bit too real for intermediate age kids, though the average to above average readers among them could certainly read it.

I am not usually one who thinks that children need to be sheltered from the harsh realities of the world we live in (see my review of Boy Without Names if you don't believe me!).  But as an adult reader I have a context to place this story in.  A young reader would not have the same background knowledge, and while it is certainly possible to frontload some background with the kids, even then I'm not sure about it.  Among other issues that may arise are the couple of times that one of the boys uses the phrase "what the hell" or "_____ the hell out of me", and there are also scenes that involve the boys (the youngest of whom is only 7) smoking and drinking.  Now, this may be an authentic picture of the lives of dumpsite children in what I think is the Philippines, but I'm imagining angry parent phone calls and long discussions with the principal.

That said, I think that there is a lot of good fodder for discussion in the book.  I am always in favor of holding a mirror up to American privilege, and books like this can help children understand that not everyone enjoys the same rights and freedoms they get from living in a rich society (though we certainly have children in our country living in deplorable circumstances, but that is the subject of another post).  I liked all of the characters, and the plot is actually fairly intricate considering the length of the novel and the intended audience.  The book has been on several "Best Of" lists, including the American Library Association and Publishers Weekly, both in the young adult category.  While I think that the readability level is probably more like 4th or 5th grade, I would suggest it really is more appropriate for mature sixth grade readers and above.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Close to Famous, by Joan Bauer

Title:  Close to Famous
Author:  Joan Bauer
Publisher: Viking Juvenile
Year:  2011
Pages:  250
Genre:  Realistic Fiction
Themes: Dealing with Loss, Self-Discovery
Age Range:  4th-7th Grade

Summary:  (from Goodreads)
Foster McFee dreams of having her own cooking show like her idol, celebrity chef Sonny Kroll. Macon Dillard's goal is to be a documentary filmmaker. Foster's mother Rayka longs to be a headliner instead of a back-up singer. And Miss Charleena plans a triumphant return to Hollywood. Everyone has a dream, but nobody is even close to famous in the little town of Culpepper. Until some unexpected events shake the town and its inhabitants-and put their big ambitions to the test.

I've enjoyed all of the books of Bauer's that I've read, and this one is no exception.  Foster is a very likable character, and you root for her the whole time.  When Foster's mother, Rayka, forces them to flee in the middle of the night to avoid her suddenly abusive boyfriend, the reader can worry about them without being overly scared, which is sort of an amazing feat for a children's author to pull off.  Throughout the novel, it is clear that Foster has an unusual amount of maturity and focus for a child her age.  She is determined to be the youngest celebrity chef on The Food Channel, and she is not going to let anything, including her mother's bad taste in men, keep her from achieving that dream.

Foster ends up being an example, not just to her mother, who ultimately does the right thing and turns her boyfriend in, but to a much bigger personality in the form of Miss Charleena, a famous Hollywood actress who went through a messy public divorce and has come home to lick her wounds.  When Foster ends up helping out at her house in Culpepper, she shows Charleena what a person can accomplish when they refuse to focus on the negative, and keep smiling through the pain.  When Foster is in pain, she bakes it away, but Miss Charleena finds her own way to move on after tragedy.

This book is full of charming characters with depth, and as Foster and her mother begin their new lives they are shown caring and support that they never expect, and that helps them realize that the world is not always the mean, painful place that they've experienced.  Foster is also dealing with the loss of her father, who was killed in Iraq, and while she is teaching the adults in her life a lesson about reaching your dreams, she is also figuring out how to keep the memory of her father alive in her heart.  I think that kids will relate to her, and there are plenty of life's lessons to talk about with students.