Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Book Review: Breadcrumbs

Breadcrumbs juxtaposes realistic fiction with fantasy in an interesting way

Based on the Hans Christian Anderson tale “The Snow Queen”, Breadcrumbs is chock-full of literary allusions. Fantasy fans will recognize references to The Phantom Tollbooth, A Wrinkle in Time, Harry Potter, His Dark Materials, and the Narnia books.

Hazel, the ten-year-old main character, is an avid reader who sees the world through fantasy tropes. She is struggling with several issues--being of a different ethnicity than her adoptive family, her parents' divorce, not fitting in at her new school. Above all else in her life, Hazel values her friendship with her best friend, Jack. She doesn’t need anyone else as long as she has him. But Jack is going through a difficult time, dealing with his mother’s chronic depression, and his feelings for Hazel change, seemingly overnight. The real world reason would be that Jack, traumatized by what’s going on in his family, has become depressed as well. The allegorical interpretation is that a glass shard from a demon’s broken mirror flew into his eye, causing him to see beautiful things as ugly. Jack flees from the real world’s harsh reality into a frozen world ruled by the White Witch.

When Hazel sets off to rescue Jack, armed only with a flashlight, a few granola bars, and a baseball signed by Joe Mauer, she expects to be able to understand the rules of the wood beyond the portal. Because she is there for a good purpose, she ought to find the help and support she needs. Unfortunately for Hazel, the wood is a twisted place where nothing makes sense. Everyone in it has come because they have lost something or someone, and they deal with their losses in a variety of dysfunctional ways. The author seems to delight in turning expectations--Hazel’s and ours--on their ear. When Hazel encounters inhabitants of the woods, the ones she mistrusts and fears often prove to be helpful; while the seemingly good ones do not have her best interests at heart.

Anne Ursu’s lyrical language and imagery reminded me of Alice Hoffman. Breadcrumbs is written for children, but it’s definitely not a lighthearted romp. It’s an exploration of serious themes: friendship, belonging, depression, sacrifice, boy/girl roles (knight/princess), escaping into stories, ordering one’s world through literature, and the power of love.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Book Review: Okay For Now

 My quest continues: to read as many Newbery-eligible books as I can before January 23.

Today's candidate: Okay For Now by Gary D. Schmidt.

If you haven't read Okay For Now, go read it. What are you waiting for?

If you haven't read it, maybe you're like me. I gravitate toward fantasy, paranormal, or magical realism. Though I do enjoy realistic fiction, I usually choose something sweet and quirky, like The Penderwicks, or perhaps a mystery like Shakespeare's Secret or The Romeo and Juliet Code.

Okay For Now sounded a bit too gritty and, well ... depressing ... for my liking. I was sure it would be as inspiring as all get-out, but I didn't want to read it.

That was before I read it.

Yes, the father is abusive. Yes, the brother is wounded in Viet Nam. Yes, the family struggles with poverty. And, yes, the kid flourishes in spite of these challenges. All my suspicions proved true.

But I didn't know how well Schmidt would nail the voice, or what an appealing character Doug would be. I didn't know the plot would involve a library, Audubon's Birds of the World, an Aaron Copland score, a Broadway play, Jane Eyre, baseball, horseshoes--and much, much more. I didn't know there would be a cop whose kids (all avid readers) are named after The Five Little Peppers.

Schmidt weaves all the plot elements together into a cohesive whole that ends on a hopeful note--without any forced and unrealistic tying up of loose ends. Doug's life still has moments of sadness and ugliness and tragedy. But it has moments of joy, as well. In short, it's a lot like real life.

So far, this is my pick for the Newbery. I couldn't put it down--and I can't write a review that does it justice.

Just read it!

Up next: Breadcrumbs.

Related Posts:
The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman
The Romeo and Juliet Code
The Orphan of Awkward Falls

Monday, January 9, 2012

Book Review: The Orphan of Awkward Falls

The Orphan of Awkward Falls by Keith Graves begins with a series of dark and haunting yet humorous black and white illustrations. Additional artwork within the book and at the end reminded me of The Memory Bank or The Invention of Hugo Cabret.

The text of this fast-paced, horrifying story opens with a scene in which an incarcerated cannibal named Fetid Stenchly is removed from his cell for a “treatment”. We don’t meet our heroine, twelve-year-old Josephine Cravitz, until chapter 2, when her family moves to Awkward Falls, a little town known for its sauerkraut factory and its Asylum for the Dangerously Insane. On her first night in their house, Josephine sees someone on the roof of the creepy mansion next door. Driven by her unquenchable curiosity, she goes out to investigate, only to be captured by an automaton named Norman. Josephine discovers that the only human resident of the house next door is a short, rotund, mad scientist/evil genius boy named Thaddeus Hibble, who lives a strange, isolated life with Norman and Felix, a mismatched cat. Josephine takes the terrifying capture and the weirdness of the situation in stride, and her curiosity remains intact. She spends the night watching Thaddeus conduct grisly laboratory procedures to bring a dead weasel back to life, and the two children form a tentative friendship (though Thaddeus vehemently denies it). The next day, as a fierce ice storm threatens to close down the town, Josephine learns that a serial murderer has escaped from the Asylum for the Dangerously Insane, and may be headed for the house next door. She’s got to warn Thaddeus!

This story has nonstop action, chills and thrills, and quirky characters (dead and alive; human and nonhuman), but it was the human parts--like Josephine’s compassion for the odd, unattractive orphan, and the welcome-home party Thaddeus has prepared for the parents he has never known--that kept me turning the pages. Middle graders who love dark tales of horror will enjoy this book. Some of the grisly details (murder, cannibalism, killing and eating of animals, reanimated corpses, mutant monster clones, a house burning down) might be too much for a sensitive or nightmare-prone child. I didn’t enjoy the parts that were told from the point of view of Fetid Stenchly, but they were mercifully brief, and my fondness for inquisitive, unflappable Josephine made up for it.

Oh, and I love the cover--it has a hole in the middle, through which Thaddeus peeks out, opening to reveal a creepy black and white picture of Thaddeus, Josephine and Felix.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Book Review: The Romeo and Juliet Code

The latest of my pre-Newbery reads is The Romeo and Juliet Code by Phoebe Stone

When London is devastated by German bomb attacks during World War II, eleven-year-old Felicity is sent to stay in Maine with her father’s family, whom she has never met. The family includes Felicity’s grandmother (known as “The Gram”), Uncle Gideon, who will also be her sixth grade teacher, and Aunt Miami, whose habit of quoting Shakespeare is reflected in the book’s title.

Felicity (nicknamed Flissy) has many unanswered questions. Why are Uncle Gideon and Gram angry with her parents? Who is hidden in an upstairs room? What are Flissy’s parents doing in Europe, and how long will they be gone? Why does Gideon refuse to let her see their letters? Why is the piano nailed shut? 

Gradually, the answers to some of the questions are revealed, partly through the investigative actions of Flissy and her cousin, Derek, and partly through the passage of time. Flissy continues to miss her parents, Danny and Winnie, but she gradually adjusts to her culture shock, grows to love her American relatives, and becomes less prickly about clinging to her British heritage.

I liked the well-researched historical aspects of this novel, and I found Flissy’s eccentric  relatives appealing. My interest level took a sharp upturn when Flissy’s cousin entered the picture. I also enjoyed the subplot in which Flissy and Derek find a Romeo for Aunt Miami’s Juliet, though the solution was predictable. I don’t want to give too many spoilers, because the family secrets were a large part of what kept me reading. The revelation of the final secret was quite moving, even if I did see it coming.

I was delighted by the allusions to the books of Frances Hodgson Burnett (A Little Princess and The Secret Garden). Flissy likes Burnett's books so much she vows to become an authority on them, and parallels can be drawn between some of the characters.

Although I enjoyed this novel very much, I found Flissy’s first person narration irritating at times, especially during the first part, when she has no one her own age to interact with. Perhaps some of the story could have been more effectively conveyed in the third person. As narrator, when Flissy does something immature or embarrassing, she has to explain what she’s doing while simultaneously refusing to admit it, and that’s tough to pull off. To me, Flissy’s voice often sounds like that of an annoyingly “precious” younger child. Though her immaturity is acknowledged by her relatives, her self-awareness juxtaposed with her babyish behavior seems odd, and her repeated insistence that she is  a “proper British child” does not always ring true.

A note about the cover art: The picture is misleading and historically inaccurate. Flissy and Derek wouldn’t have worn jeans in 1941. And, though Converse has been around for a long time, they only made hightops in the early 40s--and I’m pretty sure All-Stars didn’t come in pink until after Chuck Taylor’s death in the late 60s. Besides, though Flissy does have a bit of a crush on her cousin, it’s not at all the kind of book the cover implies. Of course, this isn’t the author’s fault, and it doesn’t detract from the quality of the story, but readers who choose it on that basis may have to readjust their expectations.

The Romeo and Juliet Code is a quiet story set against the backdrop of larger world events, and I found it a very interesting read. For those  who enjoy historical fiction set in World War II, stories of quirky families with deep, dark secrets, and liberal use of Briticisms, it will be ever so intriguing.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Book Review: The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman

One of my favorite resolutions: to read as many potential Newbery novels as possible before January 23 when the winner is announced.

I just finished The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman by Meg Wolitzer, a delightful look inside the world of competitive Scrabble. Sort of like the documentary Word Wars--only with preteens, and with a far more uplifting and satisfying story.

Duncan Dorfman, the only child of a struggling single mother, has a strange secret power: he can read printed text with his fingertips. Duncan, a nobody in his new school, impulsively reveals his gift to Carl, the president of the school Scrabble team, who immediately grasps its usefulness. Carl chooses Duncan as his partner for the upcoming tournament and insists that he use his fingertip power to skew the odds in their direction, even though Duncan is uncomfortable with the idea of cheating.

Meanwhile, far away in Oregon, April Blunt feels like a square peg in a round hole in her sports-loving family. Besides Scrabble, April has another obsession: years ago, she met a boy at a motel swimming pool. Though she doesn’t know his name, he was a kindred spirit, and April longs to find him.

In New York, a boy named Nate Saviano is living someone else’s dream. Twenty-six years ago. his father lost the Youth Scrabble Tournament. Haunted by his failure, he believes that if he shapes Nate into a winner, he will finally be able to move on. But Nate is tired of the constant study his father demands. He longs to be an ordinary kid again; going to school and skateboarding with his friends.

These three twelve-year-olds and their equally quirky Scrabble partners, Carl, Lucy, and Maxie, meet at the tournament in Florida, where their hopes, dreams, and fears collide. Wolitzer handles the large cast of characters admirably, differentiating them fully and making each one authentic, engaging, and memorable. The boy-girl relationships strike a perfect middle-grade balance--these preteens like each other, but without overt romantic overtones. For example, when Nate and Maxie win a stuffed alligator at the cheesy amusement park, Funswamp, they decide to take turns keeping it--“joint custody,” according to Nate. Because the characters are so well-drawn, even the more implausible plot elements--Lucy’s skill as an amateur hypnotist, Nate’s father’s extreme trauma over a childhood loss, April’s obsession with the mystery boy, Duncan’s discoveries about his own father--become believable.

Besides being a gripping and satisfying story, the insider information about Scrabble will sharpen readers’ interest in the game itself. After reading about two-letter words, anagrams, and the quest for the elusive bingo-bango-bongo, I was ready to dig out the old Scrabble board and put my knowledge to use. Considering the current popularity of Words With Friends, there will be no shortage of youngsters who will enjoy a book about this topic!