Round Up Of NBA Short List

I’ve now had the opportunity to read and review all five books on the National Book Awards Shortlist for Young People’s Literature!

 

The Young People’s Literature list:

Kathi AppeltThe True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp (Atheneum Books for Young Readers/Simon & Schuster). My review. “Appelt is telling us a story, and it’s written as if someone is indeed telling me a story and there was something that just felt so right about that. Comforting or safe — no, those aren’t the right words. Rather, it was the coziness of feeling as if someone was sitting next to me, sharing. It made the story seem personal; it made it seem mine.”

Cynthia KadohataThe Thing About Luck (Atheneum Books for Young Readers/Simon & Schuster). My review. “What a perfect middle grade book. Summer, 12, is a sympathetic heroine. When she got annoyed and frustrated with her younger brother and grandparents, I was right there with her. When she was embarrassing herself in front of her crush, I blushed for her. When she figured out a way to help her family, I cheered.”

Tom McNealFar Far Away (Alfred A. Knopf/Random House). My review. “Because there is a ghost, because the Finder of the Obvious has a name out of a child’s story, because the reader has been told about fairy tales over and over, for a few moments there I thought this would be a fantastical danger. I forgot that while Jacob is a ghost, or sees things from a nineteenth century perspective, Jeremy’s world is our world. The danger is not a witch or a dragon. It is a person. And a person can be the most dangerous thing of all. I thought, silly me, that since this was about fairy tales I would laugh a little. And I did. But I also cried, and was scared, and wondered at just how Jeremy could be delivered from the danger he was in because it seemed so hopeless.”

Meg RosoffPicture Me Gone (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, a division of Penguin Group USA). My review. “”Picture Me Gone is about that moment, of realization, of parents not being perfect; of things being bigger than oneself; of not being the center of the universe; and of growing up. “We are all woven together, like a piece of cloth, and we all support each other, for better or worse. Gabriel is just a baby but eventually he will see the world and his father as they are: imperfect, dangerous, peppered with betrayals and also with love.” ”

Gene Luen Yang, Boxers & Saints (First Second/Macmillan). My review. “But isn’t that history? Things that change depend upon perspective? One person’s hero is another’s murderer? What Yang accomplishes here, what is so terrific, is he manages to have the reader by sympathetic to both Bao’s and Vibiana’s beliefs. Yes, Bao — and other Chinese — are subject to humiliations and abuse because of the foreigners, and because of Christian missionaries. Yet switch to the missionaries and to the Chinese Christians and we see people asked, simply, to decide between life and faith. Everyday people, not the decision makers.”

What do I think will win? What do I want to win?

Well, I love that there is a range of ages represented here. I also like that the Yang book was viewed as one text in two volumes — and that a graphic novel was included.

I love that there is fantasy and contemporary and historical fiction.

What I think will win: The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp

What I want to win: Picture Me Gone

What do you think?

 

 

Review: The Thing About Luck

The Thing About Luck by Cynthia Kadohata, illustrated by Julia Kuo. Atheneum Books for Young Readers. 2013. Reviewed from ARC.

The Plot: Summer Miyamoto’s family has had bad luck the past year. Summer got malaria and was very sick; her grandmother is having painful back problems; her little brother’s only friend moved away. That doesn’t count things like flat tires. Or her parents having to fly to Japan to help take care of elderly relatives.

Summer and her brother, Jaz, are left with their grandparents, Obaachan and Jiichan. Bills must be paid, and money earned for the mortgage, so her grandparents are coming out of retirement to work the harvest. From May to October, the family will travel. Her grandfather will drive a combine, her grandmother will cook for the workers, and Summer will help her grandmother, watch over her younger brother, and do her homework.

The bad luck continues. Efforts to help Jaz make more friends backfire, Summer’s grandmother is demanding, and Summer begins to worry that her grandparents are no longer physically able to work the harvest. Can their bad luck change to good?

The Good: What a perfect middle grade book. Summer, 12, is a sympathetic heroine. When she got annoyed and frustrated with her younger brother and grandparents, I was right there with her. When she was embarrassing herself in front of her crush, I blushed for her. When she figured out a way to help her family, I cheered.

I also love how wonderfully balanced The Thing About Luck is, perfectly balanced as mirror and window. Summer is such a typical twelve year old, that readers will be able to identify with her. What may not be so typical? Her old-fashioned grandparents. Her grandmother, who hides her feelings with a brusque exterior. Her younger brother, whose anger issues shape how the family interacts with him. Her parents leaving for so long. And, of course, working the harvest. With the assistance of Julia Kuo’s illustrations, the whole process of “harvesting” a farm is explained. This is not an easy or simple job. It takes work and coordination. Anyone reading this book is going to look at their loaf of bread differently. And they may also think, “yes, I could run that combine…” because, just like Laura Ingalls Wilder, Kadohata shares tons of details and explanations of why and how a harvest works.

Because Summer is telling the story, certain details are left out when Summer doesn’t know or it doesn’t matter. Take Jaz as an example. Jaz’s only friend just left. His grandparents decided the answer is to have a LEGO party, inviting all the boys in Jaz’s class. Invitations are sent. Only three say yes. No one shows up. (As an aside, the planning of the party perfectly illustrates the family dynamics. The grandparents doing what they think is right, as opposed to what the parents were doing. How the four individuals talk to each other and plan what happens. It’s a great opening chapter.)

At first it just seems that, well, Jaz has no friends. Slowly, over the course of the book, we learn more about Jaz. It’s more than him being “invisible” to others, the type of shy, introverted kid who has a tough time making friends. “Why doesn’t anybody like me?” he asks his sister. (Books about kids who don’t make friends easily and want friends and don’t have them, that’s my soft spot and it just makes me so sad.) And that’s when Summer mentions to the reader, “He had such a bad temper that when he was angry, he sometimes banged his head on a wall or whatever was handy. And he was weird because he would do things like one time he started singing a song in the middle of a test.

As Summer observes, her mother thinks the singing is cute, “but I doubted the kids in his class thought it was cute.” Later, Summer says that Jaz has been taken to doctors and there is no real diagnosis for Jaz, or at least not one her parents like. Instead, Summer is told to not make her brother angry.

It’s hard to know what, really, is Jaz’s story because this is Summer’s story and whatever she tells us is limited to her knowledge and world view. And that is part of why this is a perfect book because while I, as an adult, have questions about Jaz, most twelve year old readers won’t. What they will know is how unfair it feels that a younger sibling (or cousin or friend) “gets away” with things. Or that there is always a kid in class somehow like Jaz, who doesn’t fit in or has quirks. And they won’t care if it is or isn’t OCD or ADHD, etc. etc.

I loved how class and socioeconomics was addressed in The Thing About Luck. Summer’s family gets hired to work the harvest by people who own the combines. While Summer’s parents may want to go into business on their own one day, financially that would be tough. They are clearly the workers. Probably all you really need to know is that her grandparents, despite obvious poor health, are doing the work of people 40 years younger than themselves in order to make the money needed to pay the bills. Also – -and this is tossed off, as not important to Summer but the readers get it — Summer and her brother share a bedroom, small enough to require bunk beds.

The Parkers (the family they work for) are above them on the food chain, but they have to answer to the farmers who hire them. During the harvest, people are living in cramped trailers, eating meals together. How they all interact is fascinating to watch, especially considering the group of workers will be together, like a family, for several months. Don’t get me wrong, the Parkers are nice and friendly. They take the chance of hiring Summer’s grandparents. But it’s also their business. It’s not charity.

Summer’s grandparents were born in Japan; her mother, as well as Summer and her brother, were born in America. Details about their Japanese heritage, and what that means, are woven through the book. Some of it is when her grandparents talk about their own childhoods. Her grandmother is the group cook, so there’s also talk about food. And now, of course, I want to eat shabu-shabu. It’s not just Summer and her family; some of the workers on the team are Irish, and there’s a reference to craic that made me laugh.

The only problem I had with this book? It ended! Oh, don’t get me wrong — great ending. Perfect journey for Summer. But I want more!

Other Reviews: Twenty By Jenny; The New York Times; SonderBooks.

Review: Picture Me Gone

Picture Me Gone by Meg Rosoff. G. P. Putnam’s Sons, an imprint of Penguin. 2013. Library copy. National Book Award short list.

The Plot: Twelve year old Mila and her father, Gil, are in New York, visiting her father’s friend and his family.

Or, rather, were supposed to be. Matthew has disappeared, and Mila and her father came anyway, and it is beyond awkward being in the house with Matthew’s wife, Suzanne, and baby son. Suzanne suggests that Matthew may be hiding at his cabin in upstate New York, so these two Londoners set off to see if they can find Matthew.

Mila learns a lot on this impromptu road trip with her father — about Matthew. About her father. About herself.

The Good: OK. Heads up. Two things.

First: I loved this book.

Second: The only way to talk about this book is to talk about the book in its entirety. So, yes, massive spoilers. I feel a bit guilty about that, because part of what I loved about the book is how it is told. Mila tells the story, and she boasts about how clear eyed and observant she is — and she is — but she shares certain information on her own schedule, as she deems it important. And, for all her powers of observation, she can also only tells us what she knows when she knows it.

Matthew’s disappearance is a mystery, and it’s a mystery that Mila solves, but I wouldn’t call Picture Me Gone a mystery. I wouldn’t add that little label to the spine. Instead, I’d say this is a book about secrets. Secrets kept and told, and what that means. And it’s about the biggest secret of all, that mysterious thing called “growing up.”

So, for me to get into the why I loved this, I want to talk about those secrets and what Mila tells us and when and what Mila discovers.

Mila is twelve. She’s a cherished only child. Her parents have their own lives and own love, so it’s not that she is made too important in their lives. Rather, it’s just important enough. I won’t say she’s spoiled, but she has the self confidence and self assurance that such a child has. And she is observant, and part of that may be because of who her parents are: both over 40 when she was born, her father is now close to sixty. He is a translator, so words and intent matter to him. A mother is a musician. Here, an early look at how Mila thinks: “This picture [of her father’s childhood dog] fills me with a deep sense of longing. Saudade, Gil would say. Portuguese. The longing for something loved and lost, something gone or unattainable.

Or Mila thinking about how Matthew has disappeared on his family: “The actual running away does not strike me as particularly strange. Most of us are held in place by a kind of centrifugal force. If for some reason the force stopped, we might all fly off in different directions. But what about the not coming back? Staying away is frightening and painful. And who would leave a baby? Even to me this seems extreme, a failure of love.

Up until the past year, she and her best friend Cat played involved make believe games involving spies and secrets. As Picture Me Gone starts, Cat is no longer her best friend, and instead is hanging out with other, older kids. It’s the start of Mila no longer being a child; and also the start of her beginning her journey out of childhood.

Here is the example of Mila saying what she thinks is important when she thinks it’s important. She mentions Matthew’s disappearance; she talks about Suzanne and the new baby and another son, Owen, who Mila met the last time she was in New York. That first night, Mila is given Owen’s room to sleep in, with all his things around her. At first, given the ages — Owen is a few years older than Mila — I think there is some story of a second marriage.

No. Owen is dead; had died three years before, when he was twelve. Mila says this so matter of fact, as if we knew. But, of course, the reader doesn’t. How Owen dies is also told on Mila’s timeline. It’s not that she was keeping secrets from the reader.

Talking about secrets — Mila and her father go to Matthew’s remote cabin and discover another secret. An old friend of both Matthew and Gil. A woman, Lynda. Not just any woman: a woman who, for a time, came between the two men. Lynda is with her fifteen year old son, Jake. A woman who Matthew is letting stay in his cabin, someone he sends money to. Mila, observant, quickly picks up on the reality that Jake is Matthew’s son; and that, since Jake is the age Owen would have been, Matthew had gotten both his girlfriend and his wife pregnant at the same time.

And then Mila finds out that it’s not the first time Matthew has disappeared. He disappeared after Owen’s death. In a car accident. Matthew was driving. Secrets and secrets, but so far, they are all other people’s secrets that Mila is discovering. Oh, she sees her father look at Lynda and realizes there was something once, between them. And seeing them, and meeting them, Mila begins to think of herself as someday not being a child. “Who will I grow up to be like? I wonder at what point a child becomes a person. . . . I can’t imagine living a real life, or how I’ll ever be an adult. . . . I cannot picture me grown up. I cannot picture me any different from the me I am now. I cannot picture me old or married or dead.

Mila discovers another secret, and it shatters her. And the secret — well, basically, it’s a lie. A lie both her parents have told her. A lie that, in all honesty, I don’t see as that big of a deal but to Mila, Mila who is twelve and believes in her parents, Mila who has been so privileged in her type of family: that there is even a lie shakes her faith in everything. Picture Me Gone is about that moment, of realization, of parents not being perfect; of things being bigger than oneself; of not being the center of the universe; and of growing up. “We are all woven together, like a piece of cloth, and we all support each other, for better or worse. Gabriel is just a baby but eventually he will see the world and his father as they are: imperfect, dangerous, peppered with betrayals and also with love.” And it’s not just about seeing the world: it’s Mila realizing that what she does or doesn’t do matters. “I will not always be happy, but perhaps, if I’m lucky, I will be spared the agony of adding pain to the world.” And it’s that realization, as the book ends, that marks Mila leaving childhood.

So, yes. A Favorite Book Read in 2013. It’s amazing, I love Mila, I love the language, I love how and when we are told things. (I wish there were punctuation to be clearer about dialogue, but that’s a minor point.) But, it’s not going to be easy to booktalk this one. Any suggestions?

Other reviews: Teen Librarian Toolbox; Things Mean a Lot; The New York Times.

 

Review: The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp

The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp by Kathi Appelt. Atheneum Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. 2013. Library copy. NBA Shortlist.

The Plot: Raccoons Bingo and J’miah are the two newest True Blue Scouts of the Sugar Man Swamp, charged to watch over the swamp and in case of emergency, wake the sleeping Sugar Man.

They’ll have to figure out how to wake him, when they realize the Swamp is threatened. Bingo and J’miah think the only threat is the dangerous Farrow Gang, wild pigs who eat and destroy everything in front of them.

Twelve year old Chap Brayburn knows about the other threat: Sonny Boy Beacoup, owner of the Swamp who doesn’t believe in the Sugar Man. Sonny Boy is joining forces with alligator wrestler Jaeger Stitch to build a Gator World Wrestling Arena and Theme Park. Sonny Boy doesn’t care it will destroy the swamp, or that Chap and his mother will be left without a home or a business, or the impact on the sugar that Chap’s mother uses to make her delicious pies. Sonny Boy doesn’t care he’s doing this just after Chap lost his grandfather. Give me a boat load of money, Sonny Boy laughs, and he’ll stop the development.

Grandpa Audie knew the swamp and its creatures better than Sonny Boy ever did. Grandpa Audie even believed in the mysterious, mythical Sugar Man. But Audie is gone, and Chap’s just twelve.

What can do raccoons do? What can a twelve year old do? You’re about to find out.

The Good: I read The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp for one reason, and one reason alone: it was on the National Book Awards shortlist. I read primarily young adult or adult books these days; and I’m not a fan of books about animals.

I am really, really glad that the NBA “made” me read this. (I also wish I had the audiobook version read by Lyle Lovett! I KNOW.)

I quickly fell in love with the raccoons. Appelt creates a whole world and mythology for them that I believed in and enjoyed. And Chap! He’s a great twelve year old. He’s trying his best to do what he can in a really tough situation. One of the things he does? Starts drinking coffee (or rather, trying) and I had to laugh at Chap’s not liking it but feeling he “had” to. Oh, and he takes the “boat load” of money literally by wanting to fill up a small boat with the money he and his mother make off of their fresh sugar pies.

But, what really won me over was the plotting. While the main stories are those of Bingo, J’miah, and Chap, the other characters and their stories are also fully fleshed out. And — eventually — all those various threads come together in one momentous event. When I went back to the start and began rereading, I was delighted to see how some of that was foreshadowed. This is a book I would love to mark up with highlighters and sticky notes, to be able to get a firmer understanding of the genius behind it. It was delightful to see how an event in Bingo’s story overlapped with Chap’s. One example, without being spoilery: as a young man, Audie spent a lot of time in the swamp. He loved the wildlife, taking photos and drawing pictures. He was especially intrigued by the maybe-extinct ivory bill woodpecker. Due to a very bad storm, Audie’s car was lost within the swamp, along with his photos.

Guess what is the home of Bingo and J’miah? If you guessed the car, you’d be right!

Chap’s mother makes her pies out of a very special type of sugar, muscovado sugar, “sweeter than honey, sweeter than maple syrup, sweeter than candied apples.” Do you want to know how badly I want a pie? And do you know how much I love that muscovado sugar is a real live thing? Because, yes, raccoons aren’t really true blue scouts and there is no such thing as a Sugar Man (he’s like Sasquatch or the Yeti), but aside from that, the history and nature in The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp is true. And interesting. (Like the part about wild pigs!)

And the language! Appelt is telling us a story, and it’s written as if someone is indeed telling me a story and there was something that just felt so right about that. Comforting or safe — no, those aren’t the right words. Rather, it was the coziness of feeling as if someone was sitting next to me, sharing. It made the story seem personal; it made it seem mine.

It was tough to pull quotes to fully give the flavor, but here are some I liked:

[The two raccoons] both cracked open their eyes, they both robbed their bellies, they both noticed that the dark was growing thinner, they both reminded themselves that they were, in fact, nocturnal and morning was upon them. They both went right back to sleep. And there you have it, sports fans: two hungry raccoons with hours to go before they ate.

And this, from Chap’s cat: “then again, there was the whole hair ball thing. Humans. They had such weak stomachs.”

That tone! That voice! That humor!

I should point out at this point that while animals are point of view characters, they are always animals. Chap’s cat doesn’t “speak” to him, even though we know it’s thoughts.

This is a Favorite Book of 2013. And friends, since it’s about animals – -that tells you something.

Other reviews: BookEnds, a Booklist blog; The New York Times; Author Interview at SharpRead; Nerdy Book Club.

 

National Book Award – Shortlist

The shortlist for the National Book Awards have been announced!

The Young People’s Literature list:

Kathi AppeltThe True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp (Atheneum Books for Young Readers/Simon & Schuster)

Cynthia KadohataThe Thing About Luck (Atheneum Books for Young Readers/Simon & Schuster)

Tom McNealFar Far Away (Alfred A. Knopf/Random House). My review.

Meg RosoffPicture Me Gone (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, a division of Penguin Group USA)

Gene Luen YangBoxers & Saints (First Second/Macmillan). My review.

 

This short list came from an earlier long list, which, in addition to these five, had an additional five titles:

Kate DiCamilloFlora and Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures (Candlewick Press)

Lisa Graff, A Tangle of Knots (Philomel, A division of Penguin Group USA)

Alaya Dawn JohnsonThe Summer Prince (Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic)

David LevithanTwo Boys Kissing (Knopf Books for Young Readers/Random House)

Anne UrsuThe Real Boy (Walden Pond Press/an Imprint HarperCollinsPublishers)

 

Part of the reason I didn’t blog about the long list earlier is, well, I was a bit overwhelmed by it! So many titles that I hadn’t read and I knew that there was no way I was going to be able to read them all.

I will, though, try to read those on the shortlist that I haven’t read before.

Wish me luck! I have until November 20, the day the winner is announced!

 

Review: Boxers and Saints

Boxers and Saints by Gene Luen Yang. First Second. 2013. Review copy from publisher. Boxers & Saints, Volumes 1 & 2. Edited to add: National Book Awards shortlist

The Plot: The story of the Boxer Rebellion is told through the eyes of a Boxer and a Christian. Each volume is a standalone; but it’s best to first read Boxers, then Saints, and to read both.

The Good: For a discussion of the two volumes, go back to the reviews from earlier this week.

This, instead, will be about why two volumes? And how do they work together? Or, in other words, spoilers.

Boxers is the primary story: of how and why the Boxer Rebellion again, focusing on one young peasant, Bao, and what led him not only to rebel but also to commit atrocities. Since those actions make sense within the context of the rebellion (or, as some scholars say, uprising), it’s a bit of seduction of the reader, to have the reader at least understand Bao’s actions and, perhaps, even, to sympathize; or, even to think, that such acts were necessary.

As a young boy, Bao sees a young girl; later in Boxers, she shows up again, living with the Christians. It’s the eve of a Boxer attack. She has a bit of edge and an attitude.

In Saints, we learn Vibiana’s story: why she stands on the opposite of Bao, how they both love China, why Bao sees the foreigners and Christians as an enemy and why Vibiana sought Christianity and its fellowship. The two stories contrast shared purpose, different outcomes. Also, knowing what happens in Boxers, one knows what happens to both Vibiana and Bao. Except one doesn’t know, it turns out. There is a twist. Both books need to be read, Boxers first and Saints second, to understand the full story of Vibiana and Bao.

So, why Boxers and Saints? Why not just interweave these as two stories? Why not make it one volume?

To make this part of one story — telling a few pages of Bao, a few pages of Vibiana — would, I think, minimize the importance of both. Bao deserves his own book; so, too, does Vibiana; and this way, they both have it. Truth to tell, I think Vibiana’s story would not be as strong if it were interspersed with Bao’s.

It turns out, it’s not just Bao’s and Vibiana’s characters that meet: other people show up in both books, and offer different perspectives about what is or isn’t happening. But isn’t that history? Things that change depend upon perspective? One person’s hero is another’s murderer? What Yang accomplishes here, what is so terrific, is he manages to have the reader by sympathetic to both Bao’s and Vibiana’s beliefs. Yes, Bao — and other Chinese — are subject to humiliations and abuse because of the foreigners, and because of Christian missionaries. Yet switch to the missionaries and to the Chinese Christians and we see people asked, simply, to decide between life and faith. Everyday people, not the decision makers. (Boxers and Saints includes some of those policy makers, but it’s more about average people.)

Because Boxers and Saints shows that heroes, villains, and victims may overlap. For the artful storytelling that is as much about when a part of the story is told as it is about the whole. And, for Bao and Vibiana and China. These are Favorite Books Read in 2013.

Other reviews: Stacked; Reading Rants.

Review: Far Far Away

Far Far Away by Tom McNeal. Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers, Random House. 2013. Reviewed from ARC from publisher. Edited to add: National Book Awards shortlist.

The Plot: Jeremy Johnson Johnson is haunted by a ghost, and honestly, it’s not that bad. The ghost doesn’t want to hurt Jeremy; far from it. The ghost wants to protect Jeremy!

But protect Jeremy from what?  Well, from the Finder of Occasions, of course. Wait, you don’t know what the Finder of Occasions is? Guess what? Neither does the ghost.

So the ghost mostly hangs around, talking to Jeremy (the only person who can hear him), tutoring him in math and vocabulary (yes, the ghost is very concerned with Jeremy’s education and Jeremy is very concerned with not cheating so allows tutoring but not whispering answers), and observing.

Observing Jeremy’s father’s deep depression after his wife left him, leaving the boy alone. Observing the odd ways of the villagers and how they treat people. Observing how the ton Observing Ginger Boultinghouse and how she flirts with both Jeremy and the mayor’s son. It’s really all a ghost can do, observe.

And like the ghost, we observe, and wonder, and get caught up in Jeremy’s immediate concerns — taking care of his father, paying their bills, wondering how to pay off a big loan, doing well in school, and, yes, his developing friendship (or something more?) with Ginger — so we, like the ghost, forget the Finder is still out there.

And then the Finder finds Jeremy.

The Good: To begin with, the ghost is Jacob Grimm, of the Brothers Grimm. It is Jacob telling this story: “What follows is the strange and fateful tale of a boy, a girl, and a ghost. The boy possessed uncommon qualities, the girl was winsome and daring, and the ancient ghost . . . well, let it only be said that his intentions were good.” Because it is Jacob, and because it is a tale told after, the tone and style are distinct, original, and infuses the whole tale. In some ways, I was reminded of Bartimaeus, except the ghost Jacob is constantly concerned with the well-being of Jeremy; but, like Bartimaeus, Jacob has a bit of an ego about it. He is, after all, Jacob Grimm.

Jacob, as ghost, has wandered the world, searching for release from his ghostly state. He believes that if he helps Jeremy avoid the Finder of Occasions that will somehow help him move to wherever it is his beloved brother and other family members are. So, yes, his original attachment to Jeremy is selfish, yet despite that (and despite being a ghost) Jacob becomes a sort of father-figure to the practically orphaned Jeremy. Jeremy’s mother abandoned the family years ago; his father took her leaving bad and hasn’t left the house since. Jacob is a product of his own times, so he doesn’t quite get all the modern references or lingo which can be amusing. He also uses old fashioned terminology to refer to things, such as calling the town of Never Better a village and the inhabitants villagers.

References and allusions to folk and fairy tales fill Far Far Away. A person loses a shoe, and I thought of Cinderella. A story is told of Prince Cake’s and eating one and falling in love with the first person one sees. These casual references, and some of the humor (Jeremy’s name) lulled me into forgetting the darkness of the tales. I began to see the happy endings as Jeremy’s friendship with Ginger deepens, as a solution is shown for his family’s financial mess, as his father, perhaps, will leave the house….

And I forgot. I forgot, like Jacob did, that the Finder was out there — or, rather, like Jacob, I was just suspicious enough of all the people Jeremy encountered that I became suspicious of none. And, like Jacob, “I was carried away [by Jeremy’s happiness]… when I should have stood fast and remained vigilant.” Yet, at the same time, we the reader are tuned in to the danger that is coming because Jacob is letting us know.

And the danger. Because there is a ghost, because the Finder of the Obvious has a name out of a child’s story, because the reader has been told about fairy tales over and over, for a few moments there I thought this would be a fantastical danger. I forgot that while Jacob is a ghost, or sees things from a nineteenth century perspective, Jeremy’s world is our world. The danger is not a witch or a dragon. It is a person. And a person can be the most dangerous thing of all.

I thought, silly me, that since this was about fairy tales I would laugh a little. And I did. But I also cried, and was scared, and wondered at just how Jeremy could be delivered from the danger he was in because it seemed so hopeless.

Two of my favorite television series this year are Grimm and Once Upon A Time. In reading Far Far Away, I was reminded that Once Upon a Time is much more based on Disney fairy tales than the Brothers Grimm ones. Far Far Away is much more Grimm (TV series) in tone.

Because I enjoyed spending time with Jacob and Jeremy and, even, Ginger. Because the villagers were more than they appeared to be. Because Far Far Away stayed true to the spirit of folk and fairy tales. Because the tone and the way of telling was different from anything else I read this year. Far Far Away is a Favorite Book Read in 2013.

 

 

 

Recap: The National Book Award Finalists

When the National Book Award Finalists were announced, it turned out I hadn’t read any of the five finalists for young adult literature!

In a way, this meant I was lucky because I could read each book looking for why it was given a nod by their fellow authors, the NBA judges. Of course, it also meant I had to work fast to get copies of the books (and thank you to the publishers for providing review copies for this purpose), read them, write reviews — while preparing for the YA Lit Symposium and dealing with Hurricane Sandy.

As a head’s up, from the National Book Foundation: “The building in which the Foundation office is located has suffered extensive damage as a result of Hurricane Sandy. The Foundation office is closed until further notice, but the National Book Awards will be held at Cipriani, 55 Wall Street, on November 14 as planned. As of now, all other National Book Awards Week events, including 5 Under 35, the Teen Press Conference, and the NBA Finalists Reading, will also take place as planned, but we will post further updates as they become available.”

Here are the five finalists, with a short blurb from my reviews:

William Alexander, Goblin Secrets (Margaret K. McElderry Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing). From my review: “what a world! There is magic and science. Graba is a witch, with gearwork legs shaped like chicken’s legs. She uses magic to move her house around. (I know! A twist on Baba Yaga!) Goblins were once human, and now that they are changed operate under different rules than humans. Humans acting is disallowed, both because it is frowned upon to pretend to be something you are not but also because there is real power in wearing a mask. Rowan was discovering that power, and it may be the reason he is now missing. Perhaps, overall, what I liked best about Goblin Secrets was its mix of familiarity (goblins and witches and curses) and originality (coal made from hearts, gearwork legs and soldiers, dangerous pigeons). I’m reminded of the books I loved as a child, the ones that gave me enough for my imagination to wander in the world even after the story was done.”

Carrie Arcos, Out of Reach (Simon Pulse, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing). From my review: “Out of Reach shows the impact of Micah’s addiction on the rest of the family, but even then, the focus is tight: a day in Rachel’s life. In a way, this makes the tragedy of what has happened to the Stevens family easier to handle, because it is told by Rachel after the fact — after the use, after hearing that “Micah claimed he used as an artistic experience, saying that he connected with the universe when he was high,” after the rehab not paid by insurance, after discovering that Micah has spent his college fund on drugs. It doesn’t lessen what has happened to this family and Rachel, but it makes it a bit easier to handle because it’s all things Rachel already knows, has already processed. What Rachel hasn’t processed, and what this book is about, is realizing that physically and emotionally and mentally, Micah is “out of reach” of his family and nothing any of them do or say can change that.”

Patricia McCormick, Never Fall Down (Balzer+Bray, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers). From my review: “When Arn leaves his aunt, she tells him, “Do whatever they say. Be like the grass. Bend low, bend low, then bend lower. The wind blows one way, you blow that way. It blow the other way, you do, too. That is the way to survive.” He listens to her, and her parting gift to him — to bend, to survive no matter what — saves his life. It also puts him in terrible situations, as witness to the brutalities of the Khmer Rouge. When the Vietnam invade the country, Arn fears them more than the Khmer Rouge so he takes up a gun, fighting on the behalf of the Khmer Rouge, even though he is a child himself. He takes up a gun, yes, but he has little choice — he has to follow the wind to survive.”

Eliot Schrefer, Endangered (Scholastic). From my review: “When the revolution breaks out, Sophie does not take advantage of the escape offered because of her passport because she refuses to abandon [the infant bonobo,] Otto. On one level, it’s because of her tight bond with Otto; go deeper, and it’s Sophie’s sense of responsibility because she fears that Otto has so bonded with her that he will not survive without her; go even deeper, and it’s about Sophie’s own issues from having been “abandoned” by her mother when her mother chose the bonobo sanctuary over moving to America with her husband and daughter. Sophie sacrifices safety and comfort to protect Otto. Endangered is also a coming of age story as Sophie matures, growing in understanding and acceptance of her mother’s own choices (including the realization that the choices weren’t simple) as well as her own choices in deciding to risk so much for a bonobo.”

Steve Sheinkin, Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon (Flash Point, an imprint of Roaring Brook Press). From my review: “This is about the invention of the atomic bomb, told through three stories: the scientific journey from the discovery of nuclear fission to the creation of and use of the atomic bomb; the spy story, as various people in different countries provide information on the American program to the USSR; and the military story, as commandos worked behind enemy lines in Nazi held Europe to stop the Nazis from being the first to create an atomic bomb. One of the reasons I like non-fiction is it shows why spoilers don’t matter. Most readers will know that the Americans were indeed the first to create and use the atomic bomb; so it’s not about whether it happens, but how and why. Because there are three story threads, there is even a possibility that one of those three (the spy story or the commando story) may be new to the reader, providing the suspense some readers need in their books.”

What a mix of books! Fantasy, non-fiction, contemporary, historical fiction. Books about family bonds and the bonds people create that are as strong as family. Books about loss and grief. Books about love and connection.

Review: Endangered

Endangered by Eliot Schrefer. Scholastic. 2012. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Sophie, 14, is in Congo (the Democratic Republic of Congo) visiting her mother, who runs a sanctuary for bonobos. During the school year, she lives with her father in America.

Sophie saves a young bonobo who she names Otto; she cares for him, beginning to understand, a bit, why her mother does what she does; why, when her American born father’s company transferred him back to the United States six years ago, her Congolese mother chose to remain in her country and not go with her husband and daughter.

Sophie’s mother is in a remote part of the country, leaving Sophie and the sanctuary workers behind caring for the bonobos, when violence breaks out. An armed revolution has begun. Sophie’s American father and American passport may save her, give her a way to escape the violence, but Sophie cannot bring herself to abandon Otto. Sophie decides to stay with Otto. When the sanctuary itself is attacked, Sophie has to figure out a way to save herself and Otto.

The Good: I’ll be honest; this is another book that I was nudged to read because of it being named a finalist for the National Book Awards. Here, the reason is that I looked at the cover and thought, “animal book,” and I am not an animal person. No, really, despite sharing the house with three cats, six chickens, seven hermit crabs, two ant farms and (on a temporary basis) a bearded dragon. Plus, technically, the crickets that the bearded dragon eats.

So, yes, this is an “animal book” in that Sophie rescues and cares for Otto, a bonobo (a great ape, not a chimpanzee). Endangered will deliver what readers who want animal books want: the bonobos are front and center. The reader learns a lot about bonobos, why they are in danger (the violence in the country they live, as well as hunters and poachers), why a sanctuary is needed for them, why humans (such as Sophie) care for bonobos, how the bonobos interact with one another, and efforts to have the bonobos live in the wild without being in danger from humans. Endangered provides this information but never dumps it on the reader; it is always conveyed as part of the story, of what either Sophie is learning or observing as she takes care of Otto.

The bonobos live in Congo; and the situation there isn’t simple. As Sophie says at the start, “The Democratic Republic of Congo: Where Even the Bullet Holes Have Bullet Holes.” Sophie was born there, raised in the capital of Kinshasa for her first eight years, and now returns every summer. She is half American, and half Congolese, and Schrefer paints a portrait of a girl who is both insider and outsider in both worlds she lives in. In the States, she’d “been the only African girl in the whole school. I’d gotten plenty of looks, with my plastic slippers and hair whose kinkiness I hadn’t decided whether to embrace or fight.” In Congo, she is sometimes called “mundele,” because “any white person was called a mundele. It was a sarcastic way to paint anyone who as white as stuck-up. While my dad is white, my mom is black.”

By having Sophie be part American and part Congolese, Sophie has insider knowledge of what is happening in Congo and the history of that region and language. It also makes her enough of an outsider that when she ends up her own, with Otto, she has to be careful when she meets others Congelese. A revolution is going on, and she knows she is at risk, as a female and as an American. Endangered is a look at a country, it’s history and people and complexities. It’s not all violence and bullets — far from it. More on that below.

When the revolution breaks out, Sophie does not take advantage of the escape offered because of her passport because she refuses to abandon Otto. On one level, it’s because of her tight bond with Otto; go deeper, and it’s Sophie’s sense of responsibility because she fears that Otto has so bonded with her that he will not survive without her; go even deeper, and it’s about Sophie’s own issues from having been “abandoned” by her mother when her mother chose the bonobo sanctuary over moving to America with her husband and daughter. Sophie sacrifices safety and comfort to protect Otto. Endangered is also a coming of age story as Sophie matures, growing in understanding and acceptance of her mother’s own choices (including the realization that the choices weren’t simple) as well as her own choices in deciding to risk so much for a bonobo.

The risks of being in the middle of an armed conflict — Schrefer handles this with a perfect touch. The violence and risks are clear from the first page (bullet holes have bullet holes); and, yes, people are killed. People Sophie cares about are killed. There are scenes that are heart-breaking, but Schrefer knows just what to say and what not to say to portray the danger while not being unnecessarily graphic. For example, Sophie often observes the risks a girl faces alone. At the start she is in guarded areas, and later on she has to figure how to hide from others. Sophie never specifies that what she fears is sexual assault and rape.

Endangered becomes the ultimate survival story when Sophie refuses to leave Otto. The sanctuary is attacked, and Sophie escapes into the bonobo enclosure that is protected by an electrified fence. She is safe from the armed combatants but can hear the gunfire and screams; she has also locked herself into an enclosure with adult bonobos who may see her, a human, as a threat. There is no food, no shelter, and she has to care for Otto. As time passes, the enclosure no longer is safe and Sophie is forced into the countryside, trying to find a way to get to her mother.

As mentioned earlier, Sophie has much to fear, as a young girl traveling alone; as a person travelling with a bonobo that some may view as a food source. Sophie meets people as she travels, people who help, people she has to hide from. The diversity of the people of Congo is shown in her travels, as well as the staff at the sanctuary; while Sophie is caught in the midst of a revolution, it’s quite clear that Congo is more than a place of violence. One of the things I really liked about Endangered is the way it portrayed Congo and its people and its history. Sophie being forced outside the sanctuary and enclosure is another example of how Endangered is has multiple layers: the surface one of Sophie and Otto’s journey; the deeper one of Sophie being forced out of her childhood, having to rely only on herself, not on parents or friends or country.

I don’t want to spoil what happens, or give away the ending, because I know many people read to find out what happens. I will say that I liked how Sophie’s journey ends; I love the woman she becomes; I like that the ending is hopeful but not unrealistic and that what happens with Otto is likewise true to the situation rather than a Hollywood movie.

Endangered is easily one of my Favorite Books Read in 2012, because I adored Sophie even when I was yelling at her about her choices. I’ll be honest, I’d have gotten into the van for the airport and waved good-bye to Otto. This is a favorite book because despite being the non-animal person I ended up caring for Otto, and understanding why Sophie and her mother do what they do. More reasons I love this book: because I learned about the situation in Congo and the impact of wealthy foreigners on that country; because Sophie was smart and a survivor; because of the suspense and tension about what was going to happen to both Sophie and Otto; and because no easy, simple answers were given about Sophie, the bonobos, Congo, or the Congolese.

Other reviews: Educating Alice; A Patchwork of Books; Bookshelves of Doom; and The New York Times Book Review.

Review: Bomb

Bomb: The Race To Build – And Steal – The World’s Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin. Flash Point, an imprint of Roaring Brook Press, a division of Holtzbrinck Publishing. 2012. Edited to add that this is a Finalist for the YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults Award. Edited to add: Newbery Medal Honor book; Sibert Book Award; YALSA Nonfiction Award winner.

It’s About: One nice thing about non-fiction titles: they tell you up front what a book will be about. This is about the invention of the atomic bomb, told through three stories: the scientific journey from the discovery of nuclear fission to the creation of and use of the atomic bomb; the spy story, as various people in different countries provide information on the American program to the USSR; and the military story, as commandos worked behind enemy lines in Nazi held Europe to stop the Nazis from being the first to create an atomic bomb.

The Good: One of the reasons I like non-fiction is it shows why spoilers don’t matter. Most readers will know that the Americans were indeed the first to create and use the atomic bomb; so it’s not about whether it happens, but how and why. Because there are three story threads, there is even a possibility that one of those three (the spy story or the commando story) may be new to the reader, providing the suspense some readers need in their books.

One of the reasons I like reading the National Book Award finalists after they are announced is that I can read the book looking for why a title got the nod. Here, I think it’s because of the way the three stories are twined together and complement each other, as well as make each story stronger. It’s also that (like Sheinkin’s Benedict Arnold) the writing style puts the reader in the moment, with the real life characters and events being told.

For those who are aware of the historical events depicted, Sheinkin provides information (or doesn’t provide information) that is enlightening. For example, the details on the raids on Nazi-held plants and planned kidnapping of German scientists; or that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg play such a minor role in the spy ring that they appear on only a few pages and aren’t even mentioned in the index. As a personal aside, when I was growing up the guilt of the Rosenbergs was still hotly debated. (For more on the Rosenbergs, see, for example, The Rosenbergs: A Case of Love, Espionage, Deceit and Betray[al] at the Crime Library.) (As an aside, I would love a book on American Communists for younger readers, especially about things like red diaper babies, with both sympathy and honesty.) While the Rosenbergs don’t figure much in Bomb, many other dedicated Soviets who spy based on various personal and political reasons are mentioned, including both men and women and parents with young children.

See what just happened there? How I wondered about other things, even did a bit of research? That’s one thing I love about a good book: that it satisfies me, yes; but that it also makes me think and want to know more.

Because Bomb shows just how exciting science can be. Because Bomb juggled an amazingly large cast of characters, and it was always clear who was who. Because of the exciting narration and pace. This is one of my Favorite Books Read of 2012.

Other Reviews: BookEnds, a Booklist blog; Educating Alice; at Heavy Medal at SLJ, Nina’s Take and Jonathan’s Take.