Review: Yummy

Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty by G. Neri, illustrated by Randy DuBurke. Lee & Low. 2010. Graphic Novel. Review copy from publisher.

It’s About: A fictionalized account of the life and death of eleven year old Robert “Yummy” Sandifer.

The Good: Yummy’s story was brought to national attention in a 1994 Time Magazine article, Murder in Miniature.  Yummy’s life was short and brutal, full of abuse and neglect. Raised in Chicago, he was a member of the Black Disciples. Because of his age, when he was arrested for the crimes he committed he was let out: “see, back then, the laws were set up so that no shorty [i.e., someone as young as Yummy] could be convicted of a felony. Even for the worst crime, they’d be sent to Juvie and be back on the streets by the time they were 21. So the gangs put shorties to work.” At eleven, Yummy’s crimes escalated from robbery and arson to murder when he shot at gang rivals and accidentally killed an innocent fourteen year old girl, Shavon Dean. Yummy hid from the police for several days; at first, his gang assisted him. When they realized that Yummy had become a liability, he was killed by two of his fellow gang members, brothers aged fourteen and sixteen.

  Neri only fictionalizes the framing device to tell Yummy’s story, creating a young neighbor (Roger) to show Yummy’s life, the different views people had of him, and the impact of Yummy’s life on those around him. Neri’s website has additional resources; reading them, exploring more, shows that all the quotes about Yummy and his life are pulled from primary sources.

Using a graphic novel format to tell Yummy’s story creates a sense of immediacy, of being there with Roger and Yummy. Violence is spoken about, but what is shown is not explicit. It’s just enough to show the horror, the loss, the death, without being gratuitous. DuBurke’s black and white illustrations bring the reader into the story, removing any safe distance from Yummy. It also presents the story to those kids who would never pick up a “real book” — a novel, historical fiction — but will pick up a graphic novel.

There is nothing glamorous about Yummy; it is tragic, a waste. By using Roger as a  narrator, Neri can ask questions — how did this happen? Could something have been done different? Did Yummy have choices? What about those around him?  A final note from Neri does not answer the question as to whether Yummy was “a cold-blooded killer or a victim,” but does clearly give a take away to readers: “Like the preacher at Yummy’s funeral said: make up your mind that you will not let your life end like Yummy’s. Easier said than done, no doubt. But if you can find a way to make the choice of life, then other decisions may be easier. Choose wisely.”

In addition to the choices that Yummy faced, and the choices of other young men and women in similar circumstances, Yummy raises questions of both juvenile justice and the social welfare system. Yummy didn’t just fall between the cracks — he fell between the cracks over and over and over. Was there a point when something different could have been done so that Yummy could have been saved — or, could have realized he had different choices?

This is a middle school book, with its prime readership being those who, like Yummy, are about to face choices; and those who need to see the dark side of what they may see as a glamorous life.

Review: The Aristobrats

The Aristobrats by Jennifer Solow. Sourcebooks. 2010. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: Meet Parker Bell, Ikea Bentley, Plum Petrovsky, Kiki Allen — four best friends who are about to start eighth grade at Wallingford Academy. All are “legacies,” also called Aristobrats (but not to their faces). In addition to being second and third generation “Wallys,” they are the four most popular girls at school.

Parker needs that popularity, that friendship, that acceptance, because her Aristobrat status is a bit of an illusion. Oh, she’s a legacy, all right. The thing is, the family money is gone and her single mother struggles to pay the bills. Looming over Parker is the knowledge that this could be her last year at Wally — it could be her last month. She may not even last the year! So it has to be perfect, perfect, perfect: perfect friendships, perfect boyfriend. She has the EGB (Eighth Grade Boyfriend) all picked out: Tribb. She has her popularity in place, and works on it daily with Facebook and MySpace. Her perfect plans go haywire when she and her friends are assigned to do the very unpopular school webcast. What can she do to save herself and her friends from this horror?

The Good: A perfect middle school read: fun and breezy with depth. The fun comes from the friendship and antics of “Aristobrats” Parker, Ikea, Plum and Kiki. In The Aristobrats, the two girls we learn the most about Parker and Ikea. Parker is likable, but also oddly arrogant — I can see why others would call her an “Aristobrat.” She assumes that Tribb will be her EGB even when they haven’t really spoken for weeks. She prepares her first day of school outfit with a ton of care, and having gone to schools that require uniforms,  yes, it’s not that simple! Anyway, Parker thinks, “Altogether, the look said confident but not stuck up, pretty but not self-obsessed, excited but not super-anxious about it.” She immediately realizes, “although wouldn’t staring at myself in the mirror for twenty minutes technically be considered stuck up or merely a commitment to excellence?” When a new girl starts school, Parker generously tells her that if she Friends her on Facebook, she’ll accept it. Parker considers asking Allegra (an overachiever and so not popular) to sit at the Good Table at lunch, Parker decides that “maybe Allegra doesn’t want to sit here. [It] can be a really intimidating place for most people.” But here’s the thing — Parker and friends are never mean or nasty. They don’t pick on kids or ridicule them.

Parker and the Aristobrats have many rules about what is in and what isn’t acceptable. Friendship rings? In. Macrame bracelets? Out. One of the subtle points about the book is how the girls outside begin to ignore these rules because a new girl in school is slowly rising up the popularity ladder. Parker notices the other girls wearing headbands like the new girl, realizes that Kiki’s latest haircut isn’t being copied by others, sees some girls wearing macrame bracelets, and doesn’t realize that the Aristobrats’s influence isn’t what it used to be. Parker’s expectations about Tribb are also not quite realistic or realized.

Why does Parker like rules? “Making up rules always got her back in a posimood. Rules were like happy pre-lated birthday presents — there was nothing bad about them.” Parker cannot control the absence of a dad, any moment her mother may sell the house, Parker may lose her friends and school — but she can control certain things with “the rules.” What’s great is that Solow never explicitly feeds that connection to the reader.

Ikea (“pronounced I-kay-a, like the exotic African lodge where she was conceived, not I-kee-ya, like the un-exotic Swedish furniture store“), is one of the few children of color at Wallingford and the only African American girl in her class. She’s Miss Preppy and under tremendous pressure from her attorney father to go to Yale, just like he did. When Ikea is introduced, she has glossy straight hair and hazel eyes. She gets annoyed that people think she should date the only African American boy at Wally. A scene midway through the book shows Ikea sitting in the bathroom straightening her hair with a hot comb and putting in contact lenses to hide her brown eyes. The Aristobrats raise questions abouts beauty and the under-representation of children of color at Wallingford, without being a heavy-handed message book.

What else? The romance is cute and light. Yes, some of the girls want EGBs but their dream idea of a boyfriend is someone to talk to in the hallways and at lunch, to go to a dance, and — maybe — kiss. The friendship is also great; the girls agree to do the webcast, which they don’t want to do, because they know it’s important to Ikea. Each Aristobrat is true to herself and they respect their differences. I look forward to more books in the series, to find out more about Plum and her offbeat taste, Kiki and her extravagances, as well as whether Parker will stay in school, whether Ikea keeps her father’s respect (and her brown eyes!), and what happens next with webcasts.

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?

Review: Karma Bites

Karma Bites by Stacy Kramer and Valerie Thomas. Sandpiper Books, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Children’s Books. 2010. Reviewed from ARC from publisher. Book Website.

The Plot: Seventh grader Franny Flanders doesn’t want much out of life. Just for her two best friends, Kate and Joey, to get along and be friends so that she is no longer torn between the two. Just for her divorced father to dump his girlfriend and reunite with her mom. Just for her English teacher to chill and stop assigning Beowulf. Just for some decent food to be served in the school cafeteria. Just for mean girl Elodie to stop being, well, so mean. Just for Alden to like her as much as she likes him. Just for…

Well, maybe Franny does want a lot out of seventh grade. How to get it all done? Luckily, Franny has found her Granny’s box of magic recipes. She’s about to find out — there’s a recipe for that!

The Good: Karma Bites offers a frothy concoction of over the top middle school politics, friendship dynamics, and family, with magic that sometimes helps, sometimes hurts, and always has consequences. Having read several serious books in a row, it was nice to just relax, laugh, and enjoy.

Don’t read Karma Bites expecting realism. It’s all over the top and heightened. Franny’s school doesn’t just have cliques; it has cliques so entrenched, and popular “peaks” so powerful that they control when kids can enter the school. Franny’s best friend, Kate, is the eccentric side-kick to the nth degree, dressing in “Einstein meets skater girl” and talking in extreme slanguage. Franny’s other “bestie” is Joey, who fills the “popular girl” stereotype in her own over the top way: she’s a “pom” (pom pom/ cheerleader), perky, pretty, smart. Joey and Kate cannot get along, and Franny negotiates being best friends with both with a schedule that would scare a CEO. Who she walks to school with, how long she spends with one, it’s so detailed that it leads no time for Franny. No, seriously; because she has to support Kate’s band practice and Joey’s pom practice, Franny has no time to join anything herself.

Granny counsels Franny to actually, you know, talk to Joey and Kate. Who wants to have an uncomfortable talk when a magic recipe box offers an easy solution? OK, maybe not so easy if it involves whipping up a bunch of Brassbound Beatudinous Blondies* and standing on one’s head. Unfortunately, it backfires. Joey and Kate don’t just stop hating each other — they become such best friends that they dress alike, ignore everyone else (dropping out of band, poms, and, well, everything) and setting up a blog dedicated to their own fabulosity. Needless to say, if before they pulled Franny in two different directions, now they ignore her completely. And that is just ONE of Franny’s fix it recipes that don’t quite fix it the way she wanted.

The authors, Stacy Kramer and Valerie Thomas, both have a background in the film and television industry. Karma Bites reminded me of a film or tween television show brought to life: I could easily picture Franny and her friends, their school, the details of their lives; and the problems Franny’s recipes cause, as well as their solutions, are very mad-cap capers. Karma Bites is a good recommendation for those wanting fun, humor, and friendship. You know the kids (or parents) who, when you ask them what they like to read, reel off the name of a half dozen television shows and only want tie-ins? The types of books that either don’t exist or your library doesn’t buy or are all checked out? If they are asking for iCarly, the Wizards of Waverly Place, and Hannah Montana types of books, Karma Bites will make them happy.

The recipes Franny finds in the magic box are included in the book and some are also at the book’s website. Ah, the magic box of recipes. As I said, Karma Bites takes everything and makes it that much more. So of course, Granny isn’t going to be a typical Granny. She’s a world traveler (settling down to help her divorced daughter), who practices yoga and tai chi and collects an assortment of items (and friends) along her travels. If by the time you get to the end of Karma Bites you’re thinking “oh come on” about Granny’s friends, you’ve been reading the book wrong.

My interview with Stacy Kramer.

* I am thisclose to making those blondies, minus the headstand. Except for the whole “I don’t bake” thing.