Saturday, July 26, 2014

Hollow Earth, John and Carol E. Barrowman

Title: Hollow Earth
Author:  John and Carol E. Barrowman
Publisher: Aladin
Year: 2012
Pages: 416
Genre:  Fantasy
Themes:  Family, Good vs. Evil, Imagination
Age Range: 4th-8th Grade

Matt and Emily Calder are twins with a special connection.  When they draw together, the things they imagine can come to life.  When a secret society called Hollow Earth wants to use them to access the nightmare world of demons they believe exists in a realm under the earth, they are forced to flee their home in London and go to their grandfather's estate on a remote island off the coast of Scotland.  There they learn more about their powers, and their father, who disappeared when the twins were small.  But the Hollow Earth Society doesn't give up that easily, and it will take all of their new found skills to stay one step ahead of the people who are trying to take advantage of them.

Full discolsure: I am seriously predisposed to love this book because Captain Jack Harkness is one of the authors.  As a serious Doctor Who/Torchwood geek, the man can almost do no wrong.  So I am happy to report that my love of this story is not JUST because John Barrowman wrote it.  I liked it because it is an interesting concept, something that I have never read before in all of the fantasy books I have read over the years.

(In fairness to myself, I really wanted to love Chris Colfer's books as well, given my love of all things Glee, but I didn't, and I gave it an honest review.)

This book has some great elements of traditional fantasy in a contemporary setting, which I love.  I also appreciate the historical context that the Barrowmans (brother and sister) create for the Animare, with a middle ages tie in that helps ground the story in that period of time when people were most likely to believe in magic.  Not only are the children really well written characters, but the adults in the story are also pretty well developed and made the story feel a little more mature, though still appropriate for the age range.  The setting is cool-there's something about islands that I love.  This book is the first in a series, and I am so looking forward to reading the next book.

While the story is really exciting and engaging, there isn't really a ton of discussion-worthy themes in the story, so I don't think I would use it as a literature circle choice or for guided reading, but I think it is a very good choice to have in an independent reading program or as part of a classroom library.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Beautiful Music for Ugly Children, by Kirsten Cronn-Mills

Title: Beautiful Music for Ugly Children
Author: Kirsten Cronn-Mills
Publisher: Flux
Year: 2012
Pages: 262
Genre:  Realistic Fiction
Themes:  LGBT, Identity, Acceptance
Age Range: 8th Grade and Up

Gabe loves music, being on the radio, and his best friend, Paige.  Gabe also, until recently, was a girl named Elizabeth.  At least, Gabe was born biologically female, and his parents raised him in the female gender.  As far as Gabe is concerned, he has always been a boy.  But his decision to start living his day to day life that way is new, and it is throwing his family for a loop.  The only people who seem to truly accept the new/old him is his best friend Paige, and his elderly neighbor John, himself a radio devotee.  Gabe gets his own late-night radio show on the local channel, which he calls Beautiful Music for Ugly Children.  Radio allows him to be fully himself in a way he can't be at school or at home.  But things get complicated when one of his fans discovers his secret, and Gabe is forced to confront the very real danger that trans* folks face from people who refuse to accept their identity.

I loved this book, in large part because I know a few young adults who could have been Gabe.  As a part of the queer community myself, and someone who works with teenagers on a regular basis, the prejudice, discrimination, and violence that trans* folks deal with is something that I am more familiar with than I would like.  I think that it speaks to Cronn-Mill's ability to write a fully-realized character that I was so readily able to identify with Gabe, if not through my own identity, then through the sharing of trans* youth I have worked with over the years.

Not that I have anything against issue driven stories, but ultimately this book is not "just" a book about being trans*.  The reader gains some insight into the experience of trans* folks, but Cronn-Mills does an excellent job showing just how universal the issues that Gabe deals with are in adolescence, even if Gabe has a harder row to hoe than most.  The teenage years are all about separating from parents, creating identity, and navigating increasingly sophisticated social structures.  Many youth struggle to find balance and meaning between the person they have always been, and the person they would like to become.  Gabe's transition from being Elizabeth is a more dramatic example of something that all of us go through.  Instead of diluting the issues surrounding being trans*, though, this universality may help the reader create connections with characters that are otherwise seemingly very different, which can only help create empathy for people in Gabe's position, and for anyone who is identified as "other"

I think that this book would be a great addition to any classroom library at the secondary level.  I also could see it being taught in a human sexuality class, or as part of a course on social justice topics.  Beautiful Music for Ugly Children won the Stonewall Award from the American Library Association, given to books for young adults that show excellence in portraying LGBT themes, an award that in this case is well-deserved.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Dead End in Norvelt, by Jack Gantos

Title: Dead End in Norvelt
Author: Jack Gantos
Publisher: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
Year: 2011
Pages: 341
Genre:  Historical Fiction
Themes:  Mid-20th Century America, Mystery
Age Range:  4th-8th Grade

In the Newbery Award-winning Dead End in Norvelt, Jack Gantos (the fictional one, not the real-life one) has his whole summer vacation stretching before him like the blue Pennsylvania sky-at least, until he finds himself in the middle of his parents' feuding and ends up grounded.  He fears that he will see no more of Norvelt, the small town where he lives, than the walls of his own bedroom, but he is given an unexpected reprieve when his mother starts loaning him out to the old woman down the road for chores.  His most important-typing up the obituaries for the town paper now that she has become too arthritic to do it herself.  His new job teaches him about the history of his town, designed as a modern day Utopia by Eleanor Roosevelt herself for soldiers returning from World War II, and the very flawed people who inhabit it.  When the old-timers start dropping dead, Jack senses a mystery to be solved. Despite his parents' fighting, his near constantly bleeding nose, and a few Hell's Angels, Jack helps uncover the disturbing truth about the deaths.

Jack Gantos decided to name his main character after himself, and apparently he has merged facts about his own childhood with a completely wild made-up tale about murder and mayhem in a small town.  Despite the 50 years between Jack's childhood and today, I think that he is a character that lots of kids, especially boys, could relate to.  He's mischievous but not mean, with a self-deprecating voice that rings true.  The fact of his ever-present nosebleeds and overprotective mother are things that would speak to any child who has ever been embarrassed by something over which they have very little control.  Jack sneaks out of his house, plays with his dad's war mementos, and lies to his parents when he thinks they need to be lied to.  He loves to play baseball, wants to learn to fly his father's plane, and uses binoculars to watch the drive in movies from his own yard.  In short, he feels very much like an average kid who happens to get drawn into extraordinary circumstances.

Miss Volker, Jack's "employer", is a feisty old woman, bent on preserving the town and its history, dedicated to making sure that Mrs. Roosevelt's dream of a peaceful, fair world becomes a reality.  She uses the obituaries she writes (which are honest to a fault, reputations be damned) to remind residents of Norvelt of the importance of their town, and about the values of fairness, equity, and tolerance that it was build on.  She also writes the "on this day in history" column for the paper, and she is very careful to choose events that support the very ideals that Norvelt stands for.  There are other examples of children and oldsters forming close relationships in children's literature (Opal and Miss Franny Block from Because of Winn Dixie come to mind), but while Miss Volker fulfills the role of mentor and guide to young Jack, she does so with a great deal more piss and vinegar than the average fictional 80 year old.  Through her, Gantos (the author, not the character) shows the importance of knowing your history, for those that don't are doomed to repeat it.

The subject matter, while not graphic, does include murder and arson.  Not to mention the Hell's Angels.  I actually think that this book would make a great read aloud, because the language has a lovely flow, but if you don't think that your kids can handle hearing the word "hell" spoken aloud by their teacher, then I'd avoid it.  I definitely this that it belongs in any classroom library for upper elementary or middle school, and I'd use it in guided reading, or even as part of a social studies unit.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Rules of Survival, Nancy Werlin

Title:  The Rules of Survival
Author: Nancy Werlin
Publisher: Dial
Year: 2006
Pages: 272
Genre:  Realistic Fiction
Themes:  Overcoming Obstacles, Family, Child Abuse
Age Range:  7th Grade and Up

Matt and his sisters are used to living with their physically and emotionally abusive mother.  They spend their days constantly on the alert for their mother's moods, trying to gauge how whether they are in for a peaceful or tumultuous day.  One sweltering night, after their mother has locked them in the house while she goes on a date, Matt and his middle sister sneak out to get a Popsicle.  While at the convenience store, Matt witnesses a man stand up to a father who is physically bullying his son, and he creates a fantasy where the man rescues him and his sisters from their miserable life.  Imagine Matt's surprise when the man ends up actually dating his mother.  However, when the inevitable break-up happens, Matt holds on to hope that the man, named Murdoch, will still be the hero he hopes for.  As his mother's obsessive behavior towards Murdoch escalates, will Matt be able to protect his sisters from the toxic tornado that she creates?

This book totally sucked me in!  Written as a long letter from Matt to his youngest sister, explaining things that she may have been too young to understand, the book is at times heartwrenching, heartbreaking, and heart stopping.  Matt and his sisters live in a state of constant fear, with the kind of hyper-alertness that is common among the abused, similar to what soldiers and people living in war-torn countries experience.  It is not always easy to read.  Matt's honest portrayal of the abuse that they suffer at the hands of the person who is supposed to care for them is sometimes raw, and sometimes disturbing in its dispassion.  Werlin does a great job of showing, through Matt, how noramlized the emotional and physical abuse becomes when that is all that you know.

There are lots of triggers in this book for youth who may have experienced similar experiences, but there are also many things to discuss, both in the writing style and the themes presented in the story.  I don't think that the subject matter should be avoided, but if you want to use it in a school setting it should be read with adult supervision and discussion.  If it is part of a classroom library, there may be kids who seek it out as a cathartic experience, but I'd keep an eye on who was reading it and how they respond to it.  I firmly believe that kids self-select the books that they are ready for, and put down or ignore the ones they aren't, and this novel certainly has an emotional impact that will engage readers in a very visceral way.

Teacher Resources:
Rhode Island Teen Book Awards Discussion Guide
Discussion Guide from Nancy Werlin