Review: Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs: The Man Who Thought Different by Karen Blumenthal. Feiwel and Friends, an imprint of Macmillan. 2012. Review copy from publisher. Finalist for the YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults Award.

It’s About: A biography of Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, Inc.

The Good: Reading books like Bomb, Titanic or We’ve Got a Job are easy for me, because they are about topics I enjoy. With Moonbird, I noted how I could better judge the book because I’m not an animal person so was neutral about the topic. With Steve Jobs, I had a different dilemma: the more I read, the more I disliked the person this biography was about.

My role is not to like Steve Jobs; it’s rather to talk about the books, what makes it work for me, why I think it’s on the list. As with Moonbird, it is easier to see that when I’m  not connected to the subject. I know I’m not being swept away by personal interest; so my role is to make sure that my dislike doesn’t factor into it. Part of the reason I’m sharing this with you is I get tired of posts that say a book isn’t good because the reader doesn’t like a character or topic or genre. It is entirely possible to evaluate a book based on the book.

So! Steve Jobs is a fascinating look at a complex man. Yes, he was, at times, self centered and not the greatest manager. But what really is a “great manager”? Is it someone who is liked, or is it someone who gets things done? Jobs got things done — and part of the value of a biography like this, that is not all puppies and daffodils and rainbows, is showing the reader this. Since this is a book for teens, I think it’s almost more valuable for them, who are still figuring things out, to know that someone who isn’t “nice” can accomplish great things; and that just because someone accomplishes terrific things, it doesn’t mean they are “nice.” Life is not that simplistic. I don’t say this as an excuse for how someone conducts their own life, but, rather, as something that people  need to be aware of as they get jobs, start businesses, and work with others.

While telling the story of Jobs, Steve Jobs is also a look at technology that the intended reader has always known, and is a great (and easy for the non-geek to understand) look at the start and growth of computers, as they became the desk top and lap top devices that are everywhere. It is also, more specifically, insight into specific devices that the readers probably either use or want to own: iPhones and iPads.

Business, economics, stock shares — not the type of thing generally taught to teens. Steve Jobs, using Apple, Inc., as well as other companies, does a terrific job of explaining and showing how business works. It’s not enough to invent something: where does the money come? Who takes care of the business? What is the role of advertising?

Other reviews: The Nonfiction Detectives; The Non-Traditional Librarian; Interview with author at SLJ’s Curriculum Connections.



Review: After the Snow

After the Snow by S. D. Crockett. Feiwel & Friends, an imprint of Macmillan. 2012. Review copy from publisher. Finalist for the YASLA Morris Award.

The Plot: Willo is watching and listening and waiting.

Willo was born after the weather changed, after the seas dried up and the snow kept coming and coming, and people got mean. Willo’s father, Robin, and others left the cities and went into the mountains, struggling to live but knowing it’s better than being in the settlements and cities. Willo doesn’t know anything about that; he just knows that this life, of hunting and cold and wild dogs and nature, is all he’s ever known.

All Willo has known is this life, with his father and family.

And now his father and family is gone. Willo is alone. He may have spent hours alone, observing animals, hunting, but now that he is alone he has only one goal: find his father. Find his family. No matter what.

The Good: “I’m gonna sit here in my place on the hill beyond the house. Waiting. And watching. Ain’t nothing moving down there. The valley look pretty bare in the snow. Just the house, gray and lonely down by the river all frozen. I got to think what I’m gonna do now that everyone gone. But I got my dog head on.”

This is Willo’s story, and his unique voice shines through the entire book. His voice alone is reason enough to have After the Snow on the finalist list. It’s the voice of a teenage boy who is the first generation born after the weather changed and a new ice age began. Willo is not a boy for books and contemplation. He is all about action and survival,  hunting hares and wild dogs for their meat and fur. Willo lives close to the world as he knows it: observing and being one with it, respectful of the animals he hunts, wearing the skull of one dog and half-believing the dog gives him guidance.

Willo’s voice is the one of someone who doesn’t know about the time before, the time of hotbaths, and doesn’t really care. It’s about the here and now. The here and now is what matters: and the here and now is that his father is missing and Willo will do what he can to track him down.

The journey to find his family takes Willo outside his comfort zone, the mountains and forests he knows. After the Snow is almost a fairy tale, as Willo encounters abandoned children, cannibals, settlements and cities, brutality and kindness. He  learns about who he can trust, and who he cannot. At times he is the wild boy encountering civilization at times, wondering at the world he discovers. He is a puzzle with pieces missing, because of the isolation he was raised in.

One observation: Willo’s voice and cadence and observation is a strength of After the Snow. For some readers, it may be overwhelming. Also, what we know we learn from Willo, which at times is narrow both because of his knowledge and of his interests. I guessed at some thing well before Willo, but, to be honest, while I was reading books that made me good at guessing plot twists Willo was busy hunting animals to keep his family alive.

A prequel is coming out in 2013, One Crow Alone.

Other reviews: Bookshelves of Doom; Someday My Printz Will Come; Stacked Books.

Review: Safekeeping

Safekeeping by Karen Hesse, with her photographs. Feiwel and Friends, an imprint of Macmillan. 2012. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: Radley, seventeen, is volunteering in Haiti when she hears the news: the president has been assassinated, the news reports are scary, and all Radley wants is to be home, safe, with her parents. She can’t get through to them, so she boards a plane hoping they’ll get the message she’s coming home.

“Home” has changed. Planes are rerouted, customs take hours, she is looked at with suspicion; the TV news shows vigilante groups and looters; new laws enforce curfews and travel restrictions.

When Radley’s parents don’t show up at the airport in New Hampshire, she’s scared. Her cell phone is dead, she doesn’t have the charger, she has no cash, her credit cards are worthless. Radley does the only thing she can think of: she starts walking home.

The Good: “Dystopia” tends to be a word used for any futuristic world where bad things happen. In April, The Horn Book defined it as follows: “Dystopias are characterized as a society that is a counter-utopia, a repressed, controlled, restricted system with multiple social controls put into place via government, military, or a powerful authority figure. Issues of surveillance and invasive technologies are often key, as is a consistent emphasis that this is not a place where you’d want to live,” adding that “while shambling, brain-eating zombies; nuclear holocausts; electromagnetic space pulses that knock out most of the population; or alien invasions all make for compelling reading, they do not necessarily fall into the category of dystopia. Now, if the survivors of those various tragedies form a messed-up society where freedoms are curtailed in order to protect its citizens from imagined future terrible events, then we’re talking dystopia.”

Safekeeping doesn’t start with zombies or nuclear holocausts or aliens. The backstory is simple: the American People’s Party was voted in, the president was assassinated, and the APP has used that as an excuse to seize control using laws, restrictions, arrests, and fear. The details of how this all happened are few, both because Radley was in Haiti while some of this was happening, and because now that she has returned she doesn’t have access to news (assuming that such coverage would be accurate). Is it a place I’d want to live? No; like Radley eventually does, I’d be looking for a way out. This makes Safekeeping a  unique addition to the current dystopia genre: a world very much like our own, only one election away, with no supernatural or paranormal occurrences.

Before all this, Radley was a typical teen. Perhaps a bit spoiled; or, rather, she is a child of privilege who doesn’t realize her privilege. It’s the privilege of leaving clothes behind in Haiti because the orphans could use them, and “Mom will buy new stuff for me when I get home.” When she realizes her cell phone charger is also still in Haiti, she thinks, “my parents never scold me about the frequency with which I lose things. They always fix it for me, no matter how I screw up. I’m  used to them just fixing it for me.” She’s also a teen who took time to go to Haiti, to volunteer, so “spoiled” is the wrong word. A better word is “easy”. She has had things easy. Even her time in Haiti was with the safety net of knowing comfort and her parents were just a flight away.

Radley’s return home puts her in a dire position: someone suddenly “without.” Someone who has fallen through the safety net. In Haiti, she had gotten used to less but was aware it was temporary. Now, it’s different — with no food, no money, and no one she can trust, Radley sleeps in the woods, begs for food, and searches through dumpsters. Because society is still standing, even if it’s over regulated, Radley can still go into a public washroom to get water. This isn’t a case of total fending for oneself; it’s a case of having to take care of oneself because society cannot be trusted. When Radley cannot find her parents, she cannot go to the police or to neighbors or friends because she fears the consequences. She doesn’t want to be arrested, to disappear into prison — and she sees just enough on the news, observes just enough on the streets, to realize her fears are well founded.

Safekeeping isn’t about changing the world; it’s about surviving the world. It’s about one teenager. All Radley cares about is making it through another day, lasting long enough to find her parents. As someone who is now on the fringes, she stays on the fringes — she doesn’t meet up with any resistance group, or looters, or even any APP members. She doesn’t quite trust any of them. In some ways, she is lucky; where she lives and where she travels are places where she can be alone, can disappear, can leave space between herself and the others who also are wandering the roads either looking for safety or fleeing from danger.

Radley is alone: and at first, it was almost painful, how alone Radley was. As pages went by, I realized just how few times she spoke to others, interacted with them. Even though external things were happening, Safekeeping is mostly about what is happening in Radley’s head as tries to adjust to this new reality. Sometimes, what Radley was going through almost seemed dreamlike, in a nightmarish sort of way but also in how it was equally about what she was feeling as what she was doing. In other words, this isn’t a book that will help you survive an apocalypse; in terms of surviving a dystopia, the tips are more “keep to yourself, get to Canada.” (Yes, Canada is the promised land of freedom). It is a book that will help in terms of emotional and mental survival, as Radley tries to figure out what she needs to do, how to take care of herself when others have always taken care of her, and, how, eventually, to take care of others.

Review: The Humming Room

The Humming Room (a novel inspired by The Secret Garden) by Ellen Potter. A Feiwel and Friends Book, an imprint of Macmillan. 2012. Middle grade. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Orphaned Roo goes to live with her newly discovered rich uncle. Neglected and will, she loves nature and the out of doors. She prefers being alone.

Her uncle lives on an island in the middle of the St. Lawrence River, in a former children’s TB clinic. Roo is now cared for, but isolated, seeing only a handful of her uncle’s employees.

Roo hears a mysterious humming, and it leads her to a secret garden.

The Good: As someone who has also read The Secret Garden, I enjoyed seeing what Potter used, and what she tweaked, and what she re-imagined. She’s done such a good job, especially with what she discarded.

Roo’s life before she moves in with her uncle is pretty grim: her mother abandoned her. Her father is charming, but he also neglects her. He, with his current girlfriend, are murdered by drug dealers in a trailer park. She is a neglected child, used to taking care of herself.

Uncle Emmett, her father’s brother, is in his own way as neglectful of family as his brother. He gives her no warm greeting; no love. Eventually, the reader discovers what has happened in Emmett’s life that results in his being unable to welcome her. Unlike his brother, Emmett is a financial success and can take care of his niece’s physical needs: a home, clothes, food, education. That he is not entirely cold to her needs is that he observes the old clothes she wears, that she doesn’t put on the new ones that his assistant bought her, and orders her new clothes in the style and fabric she likes. That is a kindness. Still, he doesn’t give her what she needs: love. Attention. Guidance.

Instead of a moor, the uncle’s house is on the river. The setting is beautifully shown; count this as one of the books that makes me want to travel to where it is set. And that is before Roo discovers the secret garden!

Some further parallels: Roo finds out about Jack, a half-wild boy who doesn’t seem to belong to anyway and who is almost magical in his knowledge of the animals and river. Jack = Dickon, of course, but without a link to any family. Perhaps modern readers would only believe that such an independent child is actually independent?

Of course, Roo discovers a cousin: Phillip (Colin). Instead of Colin’s mysterious ailments, Philip is a lonely child, spoiled and neglected by his father following the tragic death of his mother. Phillip’s illness, that keeps him combined to his house? Depression and grief. He is still mourning the loss of his mother and it is compounded by the physical abandonment of his father, because his father is also grieving. Emmett also feels guilt over his wife’s death: it is tragic, and it is connected to the garden, and I understand why he destroyed it and shut it away. As with The Secret Garden, Phillip is more than Roo’s cousin. He is also her mirror, a way for Roo to see her own flaws.

The garden: I loved how it is hidden and secret! A hint of magic leads Roo to it: she is so in touch with nature that she senses living things, the “humming,” and it is this humming that leads her to search for the garden. How and where it is hidden: not telling.

The Humming Room is, like The Secret Garden, about finding meaning in life by looking outside yourself. Caring for a garden, bringing it back to life, makes Roo (like Mary before her) part of something bigger than herself and establishes a connection with the world that she didn’t have before.

Roo begins, and ends, as a mostly solitary person. Part of it is that emotionally she has been shut off from others; this changes as she works on the garden with Phillip and Jack. Part of it is that not everyone is a people person. As someone who loves alone time, I respect Roo’s need for solitariness and to have alone time. Still, we all need people, and to see Roo begin to trust others, especially those who respect who she is and her needs, is beautiful.

Other reviews: Welcome to My Tweendom; Kirkus Reviews (blog post by Leila Roy); WSJ Bookshelf; the Book Smugglers (joint review).

Review: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente, illustrations by Ana Juan. Feiwel and Friends, an imprint of Macmillan. 2011. Reviewed from copy from publisher. 

The Plot: September is washing teacups in the kitchen when the Green Wind comes, asking if she’d like to come away with him and go to Fairyland. Of course, September says yes. What child wouldn’t? And so begins September’s quests and adventures in Fairyland.

The Good: How lovely, just how quickly September accepts the invitation of the Green Wind and how easily and deeply she believes in it, the Green Wind and his flying leopard, Fairyland and witches and dragons. September makes friends and accepts challenges and jumps into adventures. It’s not risk free. There are real dangers, both to herself and her new friends, and important decisions have to be made.

September’s seamless acceptance of the magical makes this a read for both those young enough themselves to believe that Fairyland may exist in the back of wardrobes, but also those old enough to no longer care what others think of their reading choices. This a delightful, rich, inventive book for both children and adults, readers understood by another writer whose magical world just happened, without explanation. As C.S. Lewis says in the dedication in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe: “I wrote this story for you, but when I began it I had not realized that girls grow quicker than books. As a result you are already too old for fairy tales, and by the time it is printed and bound you will be older still. But some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.” Sometimes, a reader has to be old enough for fairy tales.

The language of The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland is rich and deep, with much for both those for whom it is all new and for those who recognize other times, other places, other books, deeper truths. Chapter headings are elaborate and old fashioned, such as “Chapter 1. Exeunt on a Leopard. In Which a Girl Named September Is Spirited Off by Means of a Leopard, Learns the Rules of Fairyland, and Solves a Puzzle.” There is wordplay, not always obvious at first: “All children are heartless. They have not grown a heart yet, which is why they can climb tall trees and say shocking things and leap so very high that grown-up hearts flutter in terror.” Observations are made to the reader: “[September] felt quite bold and intrepid and, having paid her own way, quite grown up. This inevitably leads to disastrous decisions.” And this, so true: “ . . . you can have grief without adventures, you cannot have adventures without grief.”

As you can tell from the quotes, there is humor. Other parts that will make the reader smile and chuckle: a wyvern who believes his father is a library. Yes, a library, not a librarian. A woman made out of soap and is called Lye, with the word “Truth” on her forehead.

Some other perspectives:

At Finding Wonderland: “I quickly found myself absorbed in this charming, whimsical, offbeat tale peopled with a vast range of quirky and memorable characters, from the humanoid to the animal to the animated-inanimate. There are surprises and adventures at every turn in this book, which is suitable for middle grade audiences (although fans of creatively written fantasy might enjoy this book at any age).”

At The Book Smugglers: “it is a book that is so beautifully written and full of incredible imaginative twists and ideas that I constantly had a sense of wonderment reading it; but above all, this is a book I will treasure forever and keep close and go back to, many times in the future” and “each creature has an underlying idea or concept or issue that is addressed with subtly and beauty: from a search for self-identity (if Wyvern is not the son of a library, then who is he?) to the horrible truths of slavery; from selfless devotion to political unrest. This is a book that celebrates fairytales without ever being derivative and never forgetting that they can be dark and gruesome.”

At Fuse #8:Here you have an author who clearly enjoys writing. And if that enjoyment seeps through the page and into the reader’s perceptions, then here is a book that they’ll clearly enjoy reading. A true original and like nothing you’ve really ever seen before.”

Review: It’s The First Day of School . . . Forever!

It’s The First Day of School . . . Forever! by R. L. Stine. Feiwel and Friends, an imprint of Macmillan. 2011. Review copy from publisher. Middle grade.

The Plot: Artie, eleven, is nervous about his first day of sixth grade at Ardmore Middle School. From the moment his alarm rings and he falls out of bed, everything that could go wrong, goes wrong. Syrup in his hair, water splashed on the crotch of his pants, inadvertently getting the wrong people at school mad at him. As the day progresses, some of it is just weird, like the randomly numbered classrooms and having to get measured for books.

The next day begins, Artie’s alarm, goes off, he falls out of bed… “Again?” He thinks. Well, yes and no –he didn’t fall out of bed again, he fell out of bed the first time again. That horrible first day of school is on permanent repeat.

The Good: Every single thing a kid worries about happening on the first day of school happens to Artie, from locker mishaps to lunch missteps.

There are also some things kids don’t worry about. Like the possibility that their school is built on a graveyard. Or a principal that takes the side of the popular kids and makes threats that no adult should make to kids.

Poor Artie. He just wants to make a good impression, because not only is it the first day of school, it’s the first day at a new school. As the days repeat, he keeps trying to do it better: don’t stand near the puddle, don’t throw the ball at the back of the cool kid’s head. Avoiding one thing just brings about something worse. He hardly has any time to figure out what is going on.

I don’t want to give away the ending — but it’s delicious. Everything that didn’t make sense, that seemed scattered, falls into place, with an answer that is both satisfying and scary.

The kids who have been reading and rereading the tattered copies of Goosebumps will be pleased with this latest tale; and those who are being introduced to Stine for the first time are going to be asking for those older titles.

Review: The Kneebone Boy

The Kneebone Boy by Ellen Potter. 2010. Feiwel and Friends, an imprint of Macmillan. Review from ARC provided for review.

The Plot: These are the three Hardscrabble children. Let them introduce themselves: “Otto was the oldest, and the oddest. Then there was Lucia, who wished something interesting would happen. Last of all was Max, who always thought he knew better.”

Something interesting happens when their father goes away on business and sends his children, ages ten to thirteen, to stay with an aunt in London. The problem is, the aunt is herself away on holiday. When they realize that staying in London on their own is not a great idea, Otto, Lucia, and Max set off to find their great-aunt Haddie Piggit. Details such as having never met her and not quite knowing where she is won’t stand in their way, especially when there is a possibility that their great aunt knows something about the disappearance of their mother years before.

The Good: The story of the three Hardscrabbles are told by one of the three. They won’t tell, but my guess is Lucia because of one of the chapter headings: “In which we meet the Hardscrabbles, unearth a triceratops bone, and begin to like Lucia even more.” Yes, that “even more” is part of the reason I suspect Lucia of authorship. But perhaps it is Max, because later we are told “No one knew what Max did up on the chimney, and no one cared enough to try to find out. Which just goes to show, you should always pay attention to the youngest.”  But perhaps it is Otto, because this observation sounds more like a thirteen year old speaking: “They never enjoyed it when adults playfully lied to them. The adults always think they’re being amusing and imaginative, just like children. But kids never lie playfully. They lie as if their lives depended on it.”

How best to describe the humor? It is dark, delicious, biting, sarcastic, arch, and smart. The story itself is smart — almost deceptively so — and with the many layers, I can easily see this appealing to middle school kids , who are about the age of Otto and Lucia. Oh, the language — “All in all they were in that gorgeous state of mind in which they felt free and unafraid and sharply aware of how large and exciting the world was. In other words, it hadn’t gotten dark outside yet.”  Here is a bit on Max “knowing better” about the definition of the word “restive,” showing also how the unknown narrator adds asides to the reader: “”Restive doesn’t mean tired,” Max said finally. “It means nervous.” It does actually. I looked it up later. However, I woudn’t advise using that word because it will only annoy people, and they will think you are a giant-size prat.” Maybe Lucia is the narrator after all.

The Hardscrabbles have not had an easy life. Their mother disappeared years ago, and rumors fly in their tiny village, including ones about Otto, thirteen. It’s said that he strangled his mother with the very scarf he wears day and night, summer and winter. (Don’t worry, he didn’t. It’s not that kind of book.) Their father is an artist whose specialty is painting portraits of former royalty, that is, royalty who have lost their thrones and kingdom. It doesn’t pay well and it requires frequent travel. The isolation brought about by their mother going missing (“you can’t have dogs sniffing through your garden to find your missing mum without their being some serious damage to your family’s reputation“) makes these three siblings a tight group, so tight that even though Otto does not speak Lucia understands everything he says with his invented sign language.

The reader finds out that all that the narrator tells us in that first sentence is true. Otto is not just odd; he likes odd things, including odd stories. He manages to acquire a cat with a fifth leg and becomes caught up in the tale of “the Kneebone Boy.” When the children finally find Great-Aunt Haddie, she is living near the Kneebone Castle. The Kneebone Boy is the first boy born in the Kneebone family every generation, a boy with bat ears and claws and other things that require his family to keep him locked away from prying eyes.

Lucia’s desire for adventure leads her to push the three to not go home when they discover their original plan to stay in London has fallen apart. This leads to a day of freedom in London, a scary encounter by a river, and the ultimate discovery of Great-Aunt Haddie.

Max is really a know it all. He deciphers the clues in the one letter they have from Haddie, helping them to discover her. These three threads, the three interests of the Hardscrabbles, weave together to form not just an adventure (children alone, figuring things out!) and a mystery (what happened to their mother? is there a real Kneebone Boy?) but also a story about finding out the truth of things. Sometimes the truth is fun (a secret passage!) and other times, not so much (the mystery of their mother).

Readalikes easily spring to mind: Lemony Snicket, The Willoughbys by Lois Lowry, The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place by Maryrose Wood. For example, one chapter heading warns “in which something awful happens but I can’t say what it is.” Where The Kneebone Boy differs from these books is that, despite the initial appearance of being set in a universe as odd as Otto, it turns out to be very real. When I got to the end of The Kneebone Boy, and realized how story and the tales told shape people, their expectations, their lives, I shivered with the wonderful deliciousness of it all.

What else? A folly! It has a castle folly. And the cover. I love seeing a cover created just for a book. More on the tale of the cover at the MacKids blog. I think it captures Lucia, Otto, and Max perfectly. They look, I think, the way Lucia wants them to look: you’re not quite sure of them. And hidden in the trees…the legs of…who? And is that a crumbling castle in the background?