Monday, July 22, 2013

The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart

The Mysterious Benedict Society
Trenton Lee Stewart
Middle Grade
Little, Brown Books and Company
512 pages (paperback)

"Are you a gifted child looking for special opportunities?"
When this peculiar ad appears in the newspaper, dozens of children enroll to take a series of mysterious, mind-bending tests. (And you, dear reader, can test your wits right alongside them.) But in the end just four very special children will succeed. Their challenge: to go on a secret mission that only the most intelligent and resourceful children could complete. To accomplish it they will have to go undercover at the Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened, where the only rule is that there are no rules.
As our heroes face physical and mental trials beyond their wildest imaginations, they have no choice but to turn to each other for support. But with their newfound friendship at stake, will they be able to pass the most important test of all?
Welcome to the Mysterious Benedict Society.

First line:
In a city called Stonetown, near a port called Stonetown Harbor, a boy named Reynie Muldoon was preparing to take an important test. 

Last line (highlight to read):
"Let them play. They are children, after all."
And this was certainly true, if only for the moment.

The Mysterious Benedict Society caught my interest the very first time I saw it at a bookstore. After reading the description, I was even more interested. And yet, for some reason, I didn't read it. It wasn't until years later that I picked up a used copy and discovered just how right my instinct had been.

I really can't think of a single book that seems likely to appeal to more children than this one. It's admittedly long for a middle grade novel and some children might find it challenging, but in terms of content, I simply can't imagine someone not liking this book.

What makes this book so great? Although all four of the children are extremely important characters, Reynie Muldoon is the protagonist, and he is just about the most likable character I can imagine. Highly perceptive, self-aware, intelligent, and compassionate, Reynie becomes a leader among his friends without meaning to. Despite this, he struggles with self-doubt and feelings of isolation. I simply can't help but root for him right from the start. Kate, Sticky, and Constance are also well-rounded, though perhaps not quite as well-rounded as Reynie.

The plot is exciting and fun, and expertly keeps readers on their toes. The conflict - a genius madman planning to take over the world using subliminal messages - seems straight out of a comic book. I suppose it could be classified as a sci-fi, but it doesn't read like one. Actually, the world has a similar feel to the world in Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events books. Mr. Curtain (the villain) seems at times horribly dangerous and threatening, and at times well-intending. The confusion between Mr. Curtain and Mr. Benedict (the children's kindly benefactor) and the occasional uncertainty over who to trust, make for a roller coaster ride of a story.

Throughout the excitement, friendship remains a central theme. This book doesn't make friendship look easy. Reynie, Sticky, Constance and Kate bicker. They sometimes annoy each other. They sometimes feel selfish or jealous or hurt. This is what makes the zany plot and setting work; a lot about the book might be otherworldly, but the relationships are straight from the heart. And, when their friendship is tested (highlight to read on), this realism makes their decision to stick together a powerful moment, rather than (or perhaps in addition too) a sappy one.

This would be a great read aloud for the classroom (or at bedtime).

The last word: A fast-paced, high-stakes story of danger, espionage, and friendship, The Mysterious Benedict Society is middle grade fiction at it's absolute best.

Grade: A+

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Roxaboxen and Extra Yarn

For my first ever review of picture books, I selected two personal favorites. First up is my childhood favorite, Roxaboxen. Then I'll review a recent favorite, Extra Yarn.

Written by Alice McLerran
Illustrated by Barbara Cooney
Picture Book
Lethrop, Lee & Shepard, 1991
32 pages (softcover)

Roxaboxen is about a group of children who create their own town out of boxes and rocks that litter a nearby field in their rural town. They have ice cream shops, battles, and sea glass decorations. As a child, I found their world absolutely enchanting. Nowadays, this book makes me nostalgic. It carries me back to the age of five, when every moment - and every cardboard box - was filled with possibility.

The writing is simple and beautiful, providing just the right amount of detail. Barbara Cooney's illustrations bring everything to life perfectly.

Roxaboxen is based on a real place where the author played as a child. Roxaboxen Park in Yuma, Arizona is a memorial to the book. Here's a picture taken during the annual Roxaboxen Festival at the park.

Grade: A

One of the perks of working at a library is getting to see new books. My favorite picture book I discovered while working at the library (so far) is Extra Yarn.

Extra Yarn
Written by Mac Barnett
Illustrated by Jon Klassen
Picture Book
Balzer + Bray, 2012

Extra Yarn begins with a never-empty box of rainbow colored yarn and tells the story of Annabelle, a little girl who brings a dull town to life with her love of knitting. Her creativity knows no bounds. Before long, she's kitting for neighborhood dogs, cars, and houses. She shares her joy with the whole town, until a greedy archduke tries to take the magic box of yarn away. Klassen - of I Want My Hat Back fame - illustrates with his trademark simplicity and humor.

Clever and sweet, Extra Yarn is certain to stick around for a long time.

Grade: A+

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum

If you've ever stepped foot inside a library or a Barnes and Noble, then you know that there are a lot of books in the world. In fact, according to Google research, there are over 129 MILLION books out there. Even if you live to be 100, and were able to read the moment you were born, and you never slept, and you read one book EVERY MINUTE of your life (that's 1440 books per day), you still wouldn't be able to read them all.

Why am I telling you this? Because there are a lot of books I haven't read, and a lot of books you haven't read - and that's okay. Sometimes, though, the books I've missed seem genuinely worthwhile. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is one of those - a classic book I'd never gotten around to, but always wanted to read.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
L. Frank Baum
Middle Grade
Books of Wonder: HarperCollins Publishers
2000 (copyright 1900)
267 pages (hardcover)

Even though the Wizard of Oz is famous largely due to the movie, I really hope it would be famous anyway. It was just about the sweetest book I've ever read! You know the story, obviously. A farm girl named Dorthoy and her dog Toto are swept up by a twister, and end up in the magical land of Oz, where they team up with a "brainless" scarecrow, a "heartless" tin woodman, and a "cowardly" lion, and together the group travel a yellow brick road to the Emerald City, to enlist the help of the great Wizard. Along the way, they encounter munchkins, witches, flying moneys, sleep-inducing poppies, and other adventures.

As is often the case, the movie leaves out a number of plot points and chacters. There are other differences as well.The Wicked Witch of the West is certainly a villain in the book, but she isn't as omnipresent as she is in the film. For example, the field of poppies isn't her handiwork in the book the way it is in the movie. It's just there. Maybe because the witch isn't as central, the book feels fairly episodic. Some scenes, such as one where the group travels through a city of little china-glass people, aren't at all connected to the rest of the tale. That's okay. Everything is so charming that I was perfectly happy to see where the yellow brick road would lead next.

The version I got was the 100th anniversary edition, with the original illustrations and bookplates. If you can get your hands on a copy, I definitely recommend it.

The last word: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is a classic for good reason, offering a sweet tale of kindness and friendship in a fascinating world of magic. Though in some ways old fashioned, it remains readable today.

Grade: A-

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Gorgeous by Paul Rudnick

Every month, I look at Amazon's Best Books of the Month, and I try to read at least one each for YA and Middle Grade. Sometimes, this isn't a very appealing prospect, but I was pretty excited to read Gorgeous. It seemed like a perfect, breezy summer read.

Paul Rudnick
Scholastic Press, 2013
327 pages (hardcover)

It turned out to be something like Princess Diaries (Meg Cabot) meets Uglies (Scott Westerfeld), though leaning strongly towards Princess Diaries.

"When Becky Randle's mother dies, she's whisked from her trailer park home to New York. There she meets Tom Kelly, the world's top designer, who presents Becky with an impossible offer: He'll design three dresses to transform the very average Becky into the most beautiful woman who ever lived.
"Soon Becky is remade as Rebecca - pure five-alarm hotness to the outside world and an awkward mess of cankles and split ends when she's alone. With Rebecca's remarkable beauty as her passport, soon Becky's life resembles a fairy tale. She stars in a movie, VOGUE calls, and she starts to date Prince Gregory, heir to the English throne. That's when everything crumbles. Because Rebecca aside, Becky loves him. But the idea of a prince looking past Rebecca's blinding beauty to see the real girl inside? There's not enough magic in the world."

By far the most intriguing thing about this book is that Becky is transformed to look like the worlds most beautiful woman - but she doesn't exactly become her. When she's alone, looking in the mirror, she looks just the same as always. Maybe as a result of this, her super model good looks don't go to her head as much as you might expect, though she does grow more confident. Being so good looking means that Becky stops holding herself back because of her looks - something that, sadly, a lot of girls and women do - but when she meets Prince Gregory, she realizes that being pretty isn't a stand in for personality. I think that realization is essential to the success of the novel. The romance isn't realistic, but it's enjoyable to read.

(Highlight below to read on - contains spoilers)
Speaking of not realistic - I was really taken aback by the twist with Tom Kelly. I couldn't buy into that part at all. The combo of the magic dresses and the princess plot already had me maxed out on suspending my disbelief, and the whole ghost thing was too much.

It's an over the top book, no question. But... I enjoyed it. I was definitely rooting for Becky all the way. She is a funny, relatable narrator, and that means the book is pretty funny, too. Her best friend, Rocher, was downright hysterical. Their friendship is one of the only things that keeps the novel grounded. (I'm not saying it's enough.)

For me, this was the definition of guilty pleasure reading. I think there are a lot of people out there who wonder what their lives would be like if they woke up one morning looking absolutely stunning. Gorgeous gives us a chance to explore that possibility, ultimately reminding us (of course) that beauty is only skin deep.

The last word: With heart and humor, Gorgeous tells an engrossing, over the top story of transformation.

Grade: B-

Monday, July 8, 2013

Three Times Lucky by Shelia Turnage

Maybe it’s because we waited SO LONG for summer in Minnesota this year, but lately I’ve been craving books that remind me of swimming pools, popsicles, tree houses, sidewalk chalk, and other childhood summer staples. Three Times Lucky turned out to fit in perfectly, because this is a book that made me feel like a kid again.

Three Times Lucky
Shelia Turnage
Middle Grade
Dial Books for Young Readers, May 10, 2012
256 pages (hardcover)

 “Rising sixth grader Miss Moses LoBeau lives in the small town of Tupelo Landing, NC, where everyone's business is fair game and no secret is sacred. She washed ashore in a hurricane eleven years ago, and she's been making waves ever since. Although Mo hopes someday to find her "upstream mother," she's found a home with the Colonel--a café owner with a forgotten past of his own--and Miss Lana, the fabulous café hostess. She will protect those she loves with every bit of her strong will and tough attitude. So when a lawman comes to town asking about a murder, Mo and her best friend, Dale Earnhardt Johnson III, set out to uncover the truth in hopes of saving the only family Mo has ever known.”

Mo LoBeau is a charming narrator. She’s a kind, confident kid with undeniable spunk, and her voice carries humor throughout. Her asides are loveable and quirky. (At one point she observes, “Dale started swearing last year. I haven’t started yet, but the ways things are going, I could at any moment” (2).) She’s also determined to the point of recklessness, driven by fierce loyalty and love.  She tries to hide her vulnerability, but the reader still glimpses it at times.

There’s a lot going on in Mo’s world. Her guardians are unpredictable, occasionally vanishing for days at a time (though not at the same time). Her best friend has an abusive, alcoholic father, and his brother is an amateur Nascar racer. A snotty girl at school is her sworn enemy. Mo also waitresses at The Café, where she has to stand on a milk crate to be heard.  Plus, there’s the unsolved mystery of her Upstream Mother, and the bottles Mo sends down the river to find her. Then, amid all of this, a café regular is murdered. The cops suspect both Dale and the Colonel, throwing Mo’s already busy life into disarray. As she works to solve the crime and save the people she loves, she also moves closer to an important truth about her own life.

There are a number of little side plots that don’t seem to get quite enough attention. However, in a way I enjoyed these mini-plots, because they made Mo’s world more than a plot device; it’s her home, really and truly, and it carries all the complexity that entails. Part of what makes this work is the great cast of supporting characters. They’re all a bit quirky, just like Mo. I particularly liked Miss Rose, who reminded me a little of Melanie Wilkes.

I can only come up with one slight negative: The story takes place sometime this century, as evidenced by a few mentions of cell phones, but Tupelo Landing is extremely low-tech. Now, I’m a city girl, and maybe the setting is realistic for a tiny North Carolina town in the middle of nowhere. That said, I kept thinking the book took place in an earlier decade, and then remembering later that it’s supposed to be present day. This wasn’t really a problem, I just found it distracting.

The last word: Three Times Lucky is funny, charming, a great mystery, and, at its heart, a wonderful story about what it means to be a family.

Grade: A-

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Summertime Stories

Summer is a great season for reading. There are many, many books that make great summer reads, from classics to trendy paranormal romances to intense dystopias. Still, certain books have a stronger connection to the season. Certain books just seem to say summer. Here's a list of ten books - most tested classics - that capture that elusive summertime flavor.

Half Magic by Edward Eager, 1954. Middle Grade. Four children on summer vacation find a magic coin that makes thier wishes come true - but only halfway. This is a fun read, not to mention an enduring classic.

I Am the Messenger by Marcus Zusak, 2005. Young Adult. After capturing a bank robber, 19-year-old Ed Kennedy begins receiving mysterious messages that direct him to people in need of his help. Not my favorite book on the list, truth be told, but I was determined to include a guy-friendly YA pick.

Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry, 1947. Middle Grade. Paul and Maureen have their hearts set on owning the Phantom, a pony nobody can catch. Their efforts to break this record lead to a surprising discovery.

The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall, 2007. Middle Grade. Four sisters spend their summer at the beautiful Arundel estate, where they make friends with a boy named Jerrefy - but not with his snobby mother. This National Book Award winner reads like an old favorite.

Roxaboxen by Alice McLerran and Barbara Cooney, 1991. Picture Book. A group of children create their own town out of rocks and boxes in this beautifully illustrated book that perfectly captures the magic of childhood play. A personal favorite.

The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd, 2003. Adult Fiction for teens. In the 1960s, Lily and her black stand-in mother Rosaleen escape from dangerous racists (and Lily's cruel father) in their southern town. They hide with a trio of beekeeping sisters, who may hold the secret to Lily's mother's death. A wonderful coming of age story, great for teens and adults alike.

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants by Ann Branchares, 2001. Young Adult. Four best friends spend their first summer apart, connected by a magical pair of jeans. Lena, Carmen, Tibby and Bridget grow in ways they never imagined in this absorbing coming of age novel. Really, truly excellent.

Summer at Forsaken Lake by Michael D. Biel, 2013. Middle Grade. Twelve-year-old NYC native Nicholas spends the summer in small town Michigan, where a new friend and a tantalizing mystery lead him on an adventure he never expected. A perfect summertime mystery.

The Summer I Turned Pretty by Jenny Han, 2010. Young Adult. When "Belly" returns to the beach town where she spends every summer, she finds that the dynamics between her and the owner's two sons have shifted. A perfect beach read.

Thimble Summer by Elizabeth Enright, 1938. Middle Grade. Garnet, age nine, experiences the joys and challenges of summer on a Wisconsin farm during the Great Depression. An endearing glimpse into the past.

I've read all of the above books. What similar books are still on my reading list? Gone-Away Lake by Elizabeth Enright, Lawn Boy by Gary Paulsen, and Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool.

I apologize for the lack of diversity on this list. Please let me know if you have any suggestions to bring a wider ranger of characters into play!

Monday, July 1, 2013

Doll Bones by Holly Black

Doll Bones
Holly Black
Middle Grade
Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2013
244 pages (hardcover)

“Zach, Poppy, and Alice have been friends forever. And for almost as long, they’ve been playing one continuous, ever-changing game of pirates and thieves, mermaids and warriors. Ruling over all is the Great Queen, a bone-china doll cursing those who displease her.

"But they are in middle school now. Zach’s father pushes him to give up make-believe, and Zach quits the game. Their friendship might be over, until Poppy declares she’s been having dreams about the Queen—and the ghost of a girl who will not rest until the bone-china doll is buried in her empty grave.

"Zach and Alice and Poppy set off on one last adventure to lay the Queen’s ghost to rest. But nothing goes according to plan, and as their adventure turns into an epic journey, creepy things begin to happen. Is the doll just a doll or something more sinister? And if there really is a ghost, will it let them go now that it has them in its clutches?”

The summary of Doll Bones was enough to interest me right away. I’d heard it was a book that managed to be truly creepy, and I was excited about the prospect of a genuinely scary story.

Doll Bones turned out not to be that story. Don’t get me wrong – it’s a good book. It just isn’t the spooky read I was hoping for. To be fair, the target audience of Doll Bones is, I would say, middle schoolers, and maybe to a 12 or 13 year old it would have seemed scary. (Then again, as a seventh grader I had a lot of friends who loved the movie The Ring, so maybe not.) One reason I couldn’t buy into the creepy stuff was that Zach, the main character, is very aware of pretending. Even when I started to think, maybe something is really going on here, his doubt kept me grounded, and that isn’t an effective path to fear.

So, Doll Bones didn’t work for me as a scary story – but as a story about friendship and growing up, it was great. I remember how lost I felt the first Christmas that I didn’t want toys. Because, even though I didn’t want little kid gifts, I didn’t want grown up gifts, either. The first years of navigating that in-between, adolescent phase can be really rough, and this book captures that experience perfectly. The true artistry of the novel is the way that Zach, Poppy, and Alice deal with this transition. Each of them experiences it somewhat differently. In Zach, we see the painful, but inevitable, loss of childhood. In Poppy, we see the hurt of feeling your friends leave you behind. And in Alice, we see the torment of being under a parent’s thumb, and also the sparkling possibilities of the future.

The last word: It didn’t have me on the edge of my seat, but Doll Bones managed something far rarer – a very true-to-life glimpse into the hearts of young teens.

Grade: B+