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 Fox Inheritance

The Fox Inheritance. Mary E. Pearson. Henry Holt & Co. 2011. Review copy from publisher. Audiobook from Macmillan Audio. Narrated by Matthew Brown. 2011. Review copy from publisher. Book 2 of the Jenna Fox Chronicles.

The Plot: Jenna. Locke. Kara. Three teenage friends who did everything together. Including died together. Well, at least their bodies died; their minds were saved.

Two hundred sixty years later, Locke and Kara’s stored minds and memories are made part of new, perfect, synthetic bodies. A second life.

Everything and everyone they knew is gone. During those years, Locke and Kara existed, had been aware, been there for each other in the dark void. Now they are in new bodies . . .  a little taller. A little stronger. A little more good looking. A little more perfect.

Can two people who went through what they went through really be the same people? With manufactured bodies and downloaded memories, are they people?

The Good: Locke and Kara have spent a year at the estate of Dr. Gatsbro, the man responsible for their lives and new bodies. He cares for them, has hired people to help him, keeps them safe at his isolated mansion as they learn about this new world. Kara is suspicious of the doctor, and Locke — despite loving her, despite their bond from friendship and hundreds of years shared in the dark — wonders if he can trust Kara, if she’s the same person she was. When it turns out that Kara and Locke are samples to show off to perspective buyers — people seeking immortality by creating ageless, perfect younger versions of themselves to download into before they die — the two run away. Once away from their safe, guarded prison, Kara and Locke realize that Dr. Gatsbro was selective in what he told them about the world.

Locke and Kara go” home” to Boston; but it is not the Boston they knew. Imagine, a person from 1751 waking up in 2011. Imagine them looking for their house, beliveving, somehow, that something of what they knew still exists. That is Kara and Locke. They have something that a person from 1751 wouldn’t have: Jenna. Jenna Fox, the girl who died with them, was reborn like they were — except for Jenna, it happened shortly after the car crash. Instead of centuries in isolation, Jenna has had a life. Kara and Locke get separated, but both seek out Jenna. Locke, because Jenna was his best friend. Kara, for revenge for abandoning them. Locke is in a race, to find Jenna first, to find Kara, as he hopes that Jenna has answers and that Kara remembers the friendship the three once shared. Both also are trying to keep from getting caught by Dr. Gatsbro.

The teenage friendship of these three is depicted as magical; and isn’t that true? The magic of like minds meeting, of finding friends who love you, of sharing life and love and laughs. Friends who bring out the best in each other. Locke flashbacks frequently to their friendship before, so the reader feels the loss as strongly as Locke does and, like Locke, wants the magic back and is angered at all that has been lost.

Oh brave new world; I was fascinated by the future Pearson has created. Shoes that mold to your feet. Free public transportation. A political structure where two separate governments and citizens share the same borders. And, of course, synthetic bodies and standards that struggle to define what it is to be human. All this is shown through Locke’s eyes, so we see what he sees and learns what he learns, all through a perspective of a reluctant teen time travel. For Locke is a teen — mentally he may have lived centuries, but since those centuries were in a dark void with only Kara for company, Locke has had no chance to grow or mature.

This is a sequel to The Adoration of Jenna Fox, the story of Jenna’s days after the car crash. Readers of that book will know more than Kara and Locke about what Jenna did and did not do.

Jenna lives in California, so Locke starts a road trip across the country. What a road trip! Locke’s traveling companions are Miesha, the attendant Dr. Gatsbro hired to look after Locke and Kara who feels guilty for the part she played in his scheme; and Dot. Dot is a fascinating character; one of the most memorable and original people I’ve met in a book in 2011. Dot drives a taxi, and looks human from the waist up. As a robot taxi driver, from the waist down she is part of the car she drives. Yet, Dot is not a robot. When Locke enters her taxi, seeking to run, seeking help, Dot goes against her programming and helps him. Dot yearns to be more than she is, wants to have a story to tell others like herself who are trapped in designs not of their own choosing. The crazy, futuristic road trip these three take is fantastic, fun, and scary.

What does it mean to be human? Is Jenna more human than Locke and Kara? Are Lock and Kara human? What about Dot?

Review: Glow

Glow: The Sky Chasers by Amy Kathleen Ryan. St. Martin’s Griffin, Macmillan. 2011. Reviewed from uncorrected bound manuscript from ALA.

The Plot: Waverly Marshall, 15, and Kieran Alden, 16, are two of the oldest children on the space ship Empyrean. The Empyrean (along with its sister ship, the New Horizon) are full of settlers on their way to a new planet, leaving old Earth behind.

Children are important on Empyrean. Initially, there had been problems with the settlers conceiving, so now nothing is as important as their children and those who can have children having children. Waverly feels the societal pressure to marry Kieran and began having the children that will ensure their future; Waverly does love Kieran — she thinks. He is a catch, being groomed to be a captain, an important person on the Empyrean. Who wouldn’t want him? Kieran thinks everything is settling into place; he has a future, he has respect, he has Waverly. The future is all it should be.

Until the ship New Horizon is seen outside the Empyrean’s windows. New Horizon is supposed to be ahead of them; to see that ship means it has deviated from the flight plan. It means something must be wrong.

Something is wrong. More wrong than Waverly, Kieran, or anyone else can imagine.

The Good: This is classic science fiction, with a space ship and everything! Two spaceships, even! As can be seen from Waverly’s last name, there are allusions to another group of pilgrims. It’s not just the names; religion is significant, with one group religious and the other group secular. 

Something happens — something pretty bad. It is surprising and shocking and world-altering. Waverly and Kieran, their friends and family are tested in unbelievable ways. It happens pretty early in the book, and it sets everything in motion. It is also the beginning of wisdom, as Waverly and Kieran begin to learn of the secrets that were kept from them.

Glow is plot driven, yes; there are attacks, battles, escapes, some very tough choices being made; but Glow is also an examination of character. Neither the inhabitants of Empyrean nor New Horizon are perfect or innocent. Bad things happen, people do terrible things, and if there is one overriding theme it is about how power corrupts.

How to talk about the characters without revealing too many of the twists and turns of the plot?

Waverly is a terrific character; she’s smart, she’s driven, she’s moral. I wish I could say the same for Kieran, but the truth is I never quite warmed to him. Yes, he’s smart; yes, he’s driven; and yes, he sees himself as moral and responsible. In the beginning, he is not so much arrogant as overly self confident. He’s the type who wants to be in charge, wants to be the leader, but when push comes to shove doesn’t quite know what to do or how to lead. What he does know is he doesn’t like someone else being in charge. Kieran’s someone who, I think, believes his own press; now when he is in a situation where he has to live up to his own hype, he finds it’s not as easy as he thought.

Waverly, on the other side, is a leader because of what she does, not because of who she wants to be. She’s not operating under the same baggage as Kieran about who she should be.

There is another possible love interest for Waverly, Seth Ardvale. What is fascinating about Seth is that he is more of a leader than Kieran, but he has a dark side. I’m not sure if Seth is jealous of Kieran, or is reacting to having a father who is a bit dismissive towards him, but it means that Seth may be a better leader than Kieran but is not an ideal leader. I say “love interest,” but it’s very light love interest. More like — a possibility.

I love that I didn’t like either Kieran or Seth; both young men are flawed and full of potential, both good and bad. It’s pretty gutsy of Ryan to create such “question mark” characters for the two main male characters. A question mark hangs over both their heads. Which way will they go? Good or bad?

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: Night Road

Night Road by Kristin Hannah. St. Martin’s Press, an imprint of Macmillan. 2011. Reviewed from ARC borrowed from a friend.

It’s a three day weekend! So, like my Iron Duke review in November, here is a treat, something different, a book that is not young adult. That said, I think Night Road is a book that teens will be interested in. It’s about friendship, family, forgiveness, mistakes, redemption, and love, with a tragedy or two for those who want their heart ripped out of their chest and stomped on. Dear reader, I cried at the end of this book.

The Plot: Lexi Baill is 14 when she goes to live with her great aunt Eva in Port George, Washington. An absent, drug addicted mother and foster homes have taught her to not rely on much or expect much, especially from a relative she didn’t know she had. It turns out that Eva has what Lexi needs most: love, support, family. It doesn’t matter, not to Lexi, that Eva has little money.

Jude Farraday is the mother of fourteen year old twins, Mia and Zach. “She’d been criticized for holding the reins of parenthood too tightly, of controlling her children too completely, but she didn’t know how to let go.” For Jude, her investment in her children is proof of her love. It’s also the way to ensure that their lives are as perfect as she can make it. A stay at home mother, wife to a successful doctor, she has created the perfect home, perfect house, perfect life to ensure happiness and love for her children.

The lives of Lexi Baill and the Farradays intertwine, ending in a tragedy that changes all of them and makes them question just what love, motherhood, and forgiveness mean.

The Good: If I had to pick one reason why Night Road is adult and not young adult, it would be the portrayal of Jude Farraday. This is Jude’s and Lexi’s story: Lexi grows from child to adult; Jude’s story is more subtle, that of a parent. And not just any parent — a controlling “helicopter” parent who believes she can create the perfect world for her children. Take, for  example, when she first meets Lexi. Mia, less popular and self-assured than her brother, is overjoyed at finally having a best friend. Jude drives Lexi home to the trailer park and learns of Lexi’s background. Lexi, wise at fourteen, says “So I guess you don’t want me hanging around with Mia anymore. I understand. Really. I wish my mom had cared who I hung out with.” Jude thinks, “it did worry her, all of it, but she didn’t want to be that kind of woman, the kind who judged a person by his or her circumstance. . . . Jude could make it easy for Mia and Lexi to stay friends, or difficult. What was best for Mia?”  Jude realizes what is best for Mia is for Mia to have a best friend and so decides to allow the friendship to grow. She even helps it along, inviting Lexi along on family trips, having her stay for dinner.

I’m not sure if Jude realizes quite how involved she gets in the friendship of the two girls. Not in a hanging out with them way; rather, in an almost manipulative type way. Jude tells Lexi, a fourteen year old child — and an impressionable, needy child at that — that Mia is shy, was heartbroken over a friendship betrayal the year before. Jude talks to Lexi almost as if Lexi is an adult, getting her to promise never to do anything to hurt Mia.

No parent wants their child hurt be a friend, but think on this a moment. Imagine you’re a teen; imagine your mother tells this to your new friend. Or imagine being the teen who has finally met a possible best friend, and that friend’s mother asking you make such a promise. Things happen, friends do hurt each other, but going forward Lexi will always know that her friendship with Mia and her inclusion in the Farraday family is contingent on not hurting Mia. Mia, of course, has not been told the mirror of this — has not been told to promise never to hurt Lexi. Mia is now privileged, by money, by family, and finally by having a friend who will never hurt her, thanks to Jude’s intrusion. Perhaps Jude does not realize the level of manipulation she has engaged in with Mia and Lexi, but she turns to social manipulation later when her children are high school seniors. Jude deliberately turns her home into “an attractive web,” to make it “easy for her kids’ friends to spend the day and night here, under her watchful eyes.” She has made her house the hang out house, in order to keep tabs on her children. Never mind what they would want, or that the other parents may want to be the “watchful eyes” for their own children.

Through all of this, Jude is and remains a sympathetic character. Her primary goal, always, is the happiness of her children. While she may be controlling, or manipulative, or over-involved, she is never mean or cruel. She is operating under the mistaken belief that a person can create a world, isolated and protected and safe. If only Jude does x, her children will have perfect lives. Jude finds out that somethings are beyond one’s control, no matter what one does or doesn’t do. Jude’s world is shattered, not just from loss, but also from the truth of not being able to protect her children.

Lexi’s journey is different. She is the outsider, the poor girl, looking for love and acceptance and family. Not quite jealous of the Farradays and all their golden perfection, but, rather, admiring it and wanting it. Her friendship with Lexi is real and true, and Lexi is grateful. When Lexi has feeling for Zach — feelings that could jeopardize her friendship with Mia and her relationship with the Farradays — she does not know what to do. What is best for Mia? For Zach? For the Farradays? Does she ever get a chance to wonder, what is best for Lexi?

Lexi and Jude are at opposite ends of the spectrum of privilege in every possible way, and Jude’s privilege and Lexi’s lack is important. Take, for instance, college. Mia and Zach can apply to any school, certain in the knowledge that all they have to worry about is getting in and then deciding which one fits them best. Lexi is smart, smart enough to win some scholarship money but hardly a free ride. She can be close to the Farradays, included in family events and birthday dinners, but at the end of the day, her home is the trailer park, her finances are her great-aunt’s job at Wal-Mart and her own part time jobs, her future is more limited.

I am trying not to give away what happens, to talk about Lexi and Jude without revealing too much of the paths they each take. The Farradays and Lexi have hard truths, hard facts to face. It is easy to love, to even forgive, when the stakes aren’t that high. When the stakes are high, when what is most important is lost, suddenly, love and forgiveness isn’t so easy.

Review: Revolver

Revolver by Marcus Sedgwick. Roaring Brook Press, an imprint of Macmillan. 2010. Review copy from publisher. 2011 Printz Honor book.

The Plot: 1910. Giron, the Arctic Circle. Sig, 14, is alone in his family’s cabin except for the dead body of his father, Einar. A stranger knocks on the door — a stranger who says he knows Sig, knows his father, and has been hunting them for ten years. The stranger says he is owed something by Einar. The stranger has a revolver. What the stranger does not suspect is that Sig also has a revolver.

The Good: It’s easy to see why this earned a Printz Honor. Terrifically sparse writing, full characters, a tight plot, setting so real you put on another sweater.

The solitariness and isolation of the Arctic Circle at the turn of the century is mirrored in the book itself. Only a handful of characters appear or are talked about; Sig’s whole existence is not just in remote Arctic cabins but also involves only his parents and his older sister. This confinement makes the appearance of the threatening stranger all the more disturbing. 

Revolver tells two stories, one in 1910 where Einar lies dead from a fall through ice in subzero temperatures and one in 1899, when Einar was a young man with a wife, two small children, and a thirst to find gold in Nome, Alaska during the Klondike Gold Rush. The past explains that Wolff knows Einar but it doesn’t explain why he has tracked this small family for so many years.

Sedgwick’s writing is tight: no words are wasted. It is deceptive in its simplicity, because while it makes this book a “quick read” there are layers with much being conveyed in a few words. Every word matters, much like every movement, every bite of food, every moment matters in 1910 and 1899.

The first sentence — “Even the dead tell stories” — is at first an introduction to Einar’s death but also becomes literal as the dead — Einar — tells his 1899 story.

Because of the writing style, the reader is told just enough about the historical aspects of the story to create the flavor of the past. Details are only given for things that matter to the story: the process of testing the quality of the gold found in Nome, the mechanics of how the revolver works.

Historical fiction,  yes. It is also a mystery: what does Wolff want? Did Einar do something to warrant Wolff’s obsessive ten year search? Finally, it is a thriller: what will Sig do, especially when Wolff’s threats of violence and murder escalate to include Sig’s sister Anna?

What drives the book is the question about what young Sig will do — will he pull out the revolver and shoot Wolff? Sig’s mother viewed the gun with distaste (“You mustn’t let him touch it. You mustn’t. Guns are evil.”) while Einar’s father saw it as an amazing machine (“The boy must learn respect for it while he’s young.” “The Colt is the finest machine I have ever seen in my life. It does one thing, and it does it superbly well.”) As Sig struggles with his decision about using the gun (shoot Wolff or don’t shoot Wolff) he is also struggling with the two different ways he’s been taught.

SPOILERS.

Because I want to discuss Wolff’s motivation as well as Sig’s choice. And even now, I’m trying not to be too spoilery…  This is the type of book that demands discussion. How can it be discussed without, well, talking about what happens and doesn’t happen?

First, Wolff. As the story in 1899/1900 unfolds, the reader learns about the connection between Wolff and Einar. What Einar did and did not do, what Wolff did or did not do, is both surprising and shocking. As is Sig’s response. There is much here to talk about, in terms of responsibility and consequences. If you’ve read Revolver, what do you think about why Wolff chased Einar and Einar’s own actions?

Second, Sig’s choice at the end. As he explains, “There’s always a third choice in life. Even if you think you’re stuck between two impossible choices, there’s always a third way.” Seriously, stop reading now if you don’t like spoilers.

OK.

Sig’s choice as he sees it: Shoot Wolff. Don’t shoot Wolff. The “third choice” involves Sig using what his father has taught him about how the revolver works to create a situation that injures Wolff. So, yes, strictly speaking Sig has two options (shoot / don’t shoot) and chooses a third that is neither of those. Viewed more broadly, aren’t his options really inflicting harm or not inflicting harm on Wolff? His decision to inflict harm in a manner other than shooting Wolf does so much damage to Wolff that, arguably, it ultimately leads to Wolff’s death years later. This book will make for fascinating discussion on that aspect alone — is this really a third choice? Is what Sig did “better” than shooting Wolff?

Review: It’s a Book

It’s a Book by Lane Smith. Roaring Brook Press, an imprint of Macmillan. 2010. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Three friends: a mouse, a jackass, a monkey. Jackass holds a laptop; monkey, a book. In dialogue, monkey tries to explain to jackass what a book is and how it is different from a laptop computer. Monkey patiently explains, and explains, that no, it doesn’t do what a computer does (blog, tweet, make noises) because “it’s a book.” Finally, mouse can take no more and says, “it’s a book, jackass.”

The Good: I love books. I also love my computer. As both a blogger and a reader, I got a chuckle out of Smith’s book. Computers and books are two different things.

Most of the reviews and comments about this book have been about what age group this book for, especially given the punch line. This is not an instructional book. I wouldn’t use it to explain what a book is. It doesn’t work if the reader is in the position of jackass, not knowing what a book is. It works if the reader, like monkey and mouse, know what a book is and isn’t and what a computer is and isn’t.

Ah, jackass. For the record, it’s not saved until the end of the book to surprise the reader. On the opening pages were the three animals are introduced, “jackass” is used. I proffer the following: that if a modern-day book uses the term jackass, at some point it’s going to be the subject of wordplay. Much like “dam” in The Titan’s Curse.

What age group is this for? Certainly, adults. I can understand why some bookstores would put this in a humor section. It’s a picture book, but it’s not for preschoolers. Not every picture book is. So, I wouldn’t put it there. I’d put it in the J section of the library, where the chapter books / middle grade books are. That said, I’ve heard (via Twitter) of librarians using this with preschoolers and substituting another word for “jackass”. Now, that type of editing of text aside, I still don’t see humor based on snark as being something that most preschoolers appreciate. While I see the tone as sarcastic and increasingly annoyed, I imagine that it could be read aloud in other ways. If you have used this book with the preschool set, please share in the comments how it worked and how you used it.

As for reading this out loud and being surprised by the ending, well, it’s always a good idea to read any book to yourself before reading it aloud to someone. “Surprises” aside,  it’s always best to know the whole book from the beginning to give the proper pacing and to read with the right tone and emphasis. Besides that, with this book, “jackass” appears in the beginning so it shouldn’t be a huge surprise at the end.

Other views:

MotherReader visits this topic in It’s a Book, Jackass (honestly admitting that the use of jackass gives her pause) and Thursday Three: Surprise Endings

What Adrienne Thinks About That in It’s a Book, Jackass. As someone a bit disturbed by the futuristic guesses the books will disappear, I agree with her that ” books matter. Words matter.”

In case you’re wondering about the author, What In The Heck Were You Thinking, Curious Pages asks and gets an answer. By amazing coincidence, this also happens to be Lane Smith’s blog!

I’m a fan of Sue Corbett’s book reviews; at the Miami Herald, she reviews this under A sly comment on modern times: “It made me think: What will happen to stories before bedtime?” It’s a question I also have, since some of the things I’ve read predicting the end of books seem also to assume the end of stories.

The book trailer:

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?