Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Review: How I, Nicky Flynn, Finally Get a Life (and a Dog)

How I, Nicky Flynn, Finally Get a Life (and a Dog)

by Art Corriveau

Nicky Flynn is a lovable misanthrope. Well, to call him a "misanthrope" may be extreme, but he is, at the very least, quite grumpy. At eleven, he thinks he's got it all figured out and has little patience for the mess his mother has gotten them into (or, at least that's how Nicky sees it).

Nicky's whole world has been turned upside-down. His parents are going through a messy divorce and his mom, as Nicky likes to point out repeatedly, his mom decided she needed to "stand on her own two feet" and moved them from a house in the perfect (according to Nicky's descriptions) suburb of Littleton to a tiny/scuzzy apartment in the rough not-quite-Boston neighborhood of Charlestown. As Nicky narrates the story in a conversational present tense, you can practically see his eyes roll and hear him heave a heavy sigh at pretty much everything and everyone that crosses his path--his therapist's clumsy attempts to get Nicky to "open up," a quirky classmate's odd conversation-starters, and even his mom's surprise gift at the beginning of the novel...a dog!

Man's-best-friend novels always run the risk of being a bit cliched. But what makes Art Corriveau's take on the old boy-and-dog story feel fresh and engaging is that Nicky wants nothing to do with Reggie (a stupid name, Nicky points out, given by a past owner, not himself). The story opens with Nicky complaining to the reader about how irresponsible and typical it is that his mother went out and got this dog without even thinking about the practical side of owning a dog. At first, Nicky tries to avoid Reggie, but when it becomes clear that his mother will not be doing the walking and feeding, responsible and reliable Nicky steps up. Reggie's need for daily walks forces Nicky out of the house into the neighborhood he hates to much. Slowly, Nicky and Reggie begin to share adventures together in Charlestown and Nicky starts to (begrudgingly, and under somewhat unusual circumstances) make connections with the neighborhood and its people.

Nicky's voice is so engaging. No matter how grumpy he is, you see his warm and honest heart shining through. As he and Reggie explore Charlestown and Boston together, Nicky thinks back on a special day he spent exploring the city with his dad. Nicky's holds his dad up on a pedestal, and your heart aches for him as time and time again, his dad bails on weekend plans. As a reader, you try to make sense of the image Nicky paints of his father and the image that the facts seem to show--a dad who just isn't around. You want to comfort Nicky, but at the same time, tell him to snap out of it.

How I, Nicky Flynn... is a funny, sweet, sincere story. It confronts the fact that everyone makes mistakes, kids and adults alike and that change, scary as it may seem, can be the best thing that happened to you.

Release date: May, 2010

Things to think about as you read How I Nicky Flynn Get a Life and a Dog:
-Verb tense (Corriveau chose to write in the present tense!)
-Character development (How do the characters change?)
-Unreliable narrator (Do you ever disagree with Nicky's opinions/interpretations?)

You might also like...
Drums, Girls and Dangerous Pie by Jordan Sonnenblick
Zen and the Art of Faking It by Jordan Sonnenblick
The Fourth Stall by Chris Rylander
Schooled by Gordon Korman
My Brother's Keeper by Patricia McCormick

Monday, May 30, 2011

Review: Grounded


by Kate Klise

Who would ever guess that a story about a young girl losing her father, brother and sister to a horrible plane crash could be so full of laughs? Yes, Grounded explores the aftermath of a horrible loss, but by its end, you realize that it is not really a story about death. It's a story about what it means to be alive. It's about the people who are left behind when tragedy strikes (Daralynn and her mother, in this case) and how they have to drag themselves up and back into life no matter how much the hurt drags them down.

Daralynn Oakland is a twelve-year-old tomboy living in the tiny southern town of Digginsville (population 402!). The story begins when she and her tough-as-nails mother Hattie find out that Daralynn's father, 16-year-old brother and 7-year-old sister have all been killed in a plane crash. The only reason Daralynn wasn't along for the ride was because she was (as the title hints) grounded. Daralynn and her mother--a proud and reserved woman--have always butted heads, and Daralynn had been grounded that day because she had run off to the lake to fish without letting her mother know where she was going. Daralynn already thought her mother's leash was short before her father, brother and sister's death, but once Daralynn is the only child left, her mother won't let her out of her sight.

At first, I had a bit of a hard time warming up to Grounded. I wasn't sure what to make of the casual tone used for such a sad situation. Also, many of the characters of Digginsville felt a bit like caricatures--Daralynn's flashy Aunt Josie, for example, in her too-tight clothing and too-bright lipstick. But Daralynn's genuine and straight-forward voice kept me reading. Soon I began to realize that Daralynn's seemingly emotionless tone when talking about the deaths was not bad writing--it was part of Daralynn's character. Much like her mother, Daralynn is not one to wear her heart on her sleeve. She and her mother are proud and not about to make a slobbery, blubbering mess of themselves in front of everyone. Daralynn and her mother cope with their tragedy in their own way.

For Daralynn, this means throwing herself into investigating Digginsville's mysterious newcomer, Mr. Clem. Mr. Clem has opened the town's first crematorium--that's right, a place where they cremate people. He cozies up to Daralynn's beloved Aunt Josie awfully quick and Daralynn decides she needs to figure this guy out. Through her investigation, which she journals about in letters addressed to her dead family members, Daralynn slowly starts to face the sad reality of her "A.C." life, as she calls it (life "After the Crash").

Daralynn is tough and observant, and she describes the oddball characters of her town with the serious tone of a news reporter. This provides a lot of humor since so many of the people of Digginsville are so quirky.

But while Daralynn's "investigation" provides humor and suspense, this story is really about a mother and daughter trying to find each other through the fog of a deeply tragic loss. I am a sucker for mother-daughter stories. Hattie just doesn't seem to understand her daughter, and what's worse is that for much of the book, she doesn't seem interested in trying to. This story is about the danger of letting a sad event harden your heart. As I read on, I found myself willing Hattie to open her eyes and see her daughter there in front of her, needing her. Losing those we love can so easily make us want to never take the risk of loving again, but as wacky Aunt Josie says, "Everybody needs somebody to take care of them, and it's the taking care of that makes us sweet" (p. 30). Grounded shows that no matter how many times your heart gets broken, it's always worth letting yourself care again.

Release date: November, 2010

Things to think about as you read Grounded:
-Character development (How do the characters--Daralynn, her mother, etc.--change as the story goes on?)
-Setting (How does the setting--small southern town in the 1970s--add to the story?)
-Dark humor

You might also like...
Pie by Sarah Weeks
Faith, Hope and Ivy June by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson

Friday, May 27, 2011

Review: A Wrinkle in Time

A Wrinkle in Time

by Madeleine L'Engle

One of my favorite questions to ask when trying to get to know someone is, "What were your favorite childhood books?" A misty look comes over the person's face, and they usually sigh a bit. They reach back into memory, and it's as if they are getting reacquainted with their younger self. Every reader has a few special books that stood out. Sometimes it is because you read the book at a particularly meaningful moment in your life, but more often than not, I think it's because there is something special about the book itself. Something at the heart of the book--a belief, a way of looking at the world--that fit perfectly with your own heart when you read it. And there are some books that have this effect more often than others. These are the books that come up again and again when I ask the "favorite childhood books" question; books like The Giver, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, To Kill a Mockingbird.

Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time is one of these books, but somehow, I completely missed it! I never read the "Time Quartet" as a kid, and I don't know how that happened, because they are exactly the kind of books I was drawn to. I have just finished reading A Wrinkle in Time (the first in the series) in a 48-hour spree. Actually, I think time may have "wrinkled" while I read it, the hours passing like minutes. I can't decide if I'm bummed to have missed out on it as a kid or glad to have been able to experience it for the first time as an adult. At any rate, it has plenty to offer to any age.

The book is extraordinary. It has all the elements of a classic fantasy--a misunderstood protagonist, dark forces at work in the world (or in this case, universe). It also has elements of science fiction that push the boundaries of our beliefs about time, space, matter, reality and the mind. It is deeply philosophical and spiritual, but there are also moments when it has the simple and homey tone of a fairy tale or bedtime story. So, it has something for pretty much everyone.

A Wrinkle in Time is the story of Meg Murry. At the beginning of the book, she feels like a complete misfit. The daughter of two genius-scientists, Meg is smart--perhaps too smart. She can't seem to play by the rules at school (memorizing facts, reciting the answers deemed correct by the teacher). She can't think "inside the box," and is forever doing things "wrong," being scolded by her teachers and then lashing out in frustration and landing herself in the principal's office. It certainly doesn't help that Meg's father disappeared mysteriously four years prior and everyone in town has come to the conclusion that he ran out on their family. Meg is sure her father didn't abandon them and she longs for the day that he will return.

Meg's only comfort is her family--especially her mother, who understands that Meg just needs to learn things in her own way, and her little brother Charles Wallace, who loves Meg unshakably and who, like her, is also misunderstood by the narrow-minded world.

As in any good fantasy/sci-fi story, strange events begin to occur. Meg and Charles Wallace (along with their new friend Calvin) meet the highly unusual Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which, and learn that their father's only hope of escaping a sinister force that holds him captive ("IT") is for them to go on a wild and mind-boggling rescue mission through time and space.

This book stretched my mind around the concept of time travel in ways I never thought possible. And I loved watching Meg, so self-doubting and sullen at the beginning of the book, transform into a bold heroine by the story's end. She is flawed, like we all are, but it is through embracing her flaws and refusing to see her differentness as a weakness that Meg rises up as a leader. As complex as this story seems at times, it is really a story about the beauty of a complicated, diverse world and of love's ability to overcome all other forces.

A Wrinkle in Time is a thrill at any age. Next time it comes up in a conversation about someone's list of most-special-childhood-books, you'll find me sighing and misty-eyed right along with them.

Release date: 1962

Things to think about as you read A Wrinkle in Time:
-Internal and external conflict
-Character development

You might also like...
When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead (see Ms. Wrenn's review)
The Giver by Lois Lowry
Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Review: Moon Over Manifest

Moon Over Manifest

by Clare Vanderpool

My only regret after finishing Moon Over Manifest is that I didn't read it while sitting on a gently swaying porch swing, sipping ice-cold lemonade, swatting away the occasional mosquito as a harmonica played and a steam engine sounded its passing in the distance. Reading this book is like stepping back in time, and as I came to the last lines, it was bittersweet to know that I was about to leave that world behind.

Moon Over Manifest is the story of tough and independent Abilene Tucker. At the beginning of the story, Abilene saunters into the seemingly dull Kansas town of Manifest. She is settling down (not by her own choice) for the first time in a childhood spent on the road. Well, on the rails, actually. During the Great Depression of the 1930's, many jobless men resorted to a life of hitching rides on the railroads, going from town to town in search of work. Abilene and her father, Gideon, were two such "hobos"--an unusual background for a girl of twelve, to say the least.

From the moment she arrives in Manifest, Abilene is counting down the days left in the summer. She can think of nothing but the day when Gideon, who has sent her there alone, will come to take her back out on the rails with him. But it doesn't take long for doubt to set in. Is Gideon coming back? Why has he sent her to this town? Abilene knows that he spent time here before she was born, but when she tries to learn more from the people she meets in Manifest, she gets nothing but cryptic answers and dead-ends. But whether Gideon is coming back for her is not the only mystery she has to deal with. Abilene seems to be a magnet for secrets, eerie events and strange coincidences. A threatening note leads Abilene to begin scraping at Manifest's sleepy surface and she soon discovers that underneath, Manifest is a town with a dramatic past.

A rail-riding, twelve-year-old girl makes for a very unique protagonist. Abilene's voice is strong and steady, but just when she starts to seem a little too grown-up, she reveals the fears and doubts that are underneath her big talk. Abilene is the perfect heroine for a mystery. She's a fearless investigator, a careful listener, and an unabashed snoop.

In addition to bringing us a likable and original heroine in Abilene, Clare Vanderpool does an excellent job of making her book impossible to put down. The story moves back and forth between Abilene's life (Manifest, 1936) and glimpses of the past (Manifest, 1917), through stories told by the medium Miss Sadie and through letters and trinkets found underneath the floorboards of Abilene's room. Vanderpool transitions into these flashbacks so enticingly that you can't help but read on. All this past week, my eyelids sagging, I would try my darnedest to find a good stopping point, but when I saw that the end of the chapter was leading into a new flashback, I just couldn't bring myself to close the book. I needed to know what new secrets would be revealed, so I kept reading on, no matter the time. (For a teacher, on a school-night, that's saying a lot!)

While Moon Over Manifest is an excellent mystery, this is really just a clever disguise. At its heart, this is a story about family and community and what it means to make a home. It's also a story about...well, stories. Everyone in Manifest has a story, and there is something sacred in their tellings. As Miss Sadie's stories of old Manifest become more and more frequent, Abilene realizes that "As much as I had a need to hear her story, she had a need to tell it. It was as if the story was the only balm that provided any comfort" (p. 154). As the summer creeps on, Abilene realizes what an honor it is to have been invited, not just into the stories of the people of Manifest, but into their lives. In this novel, Clare Vanderpool both celebrates and demonstrates the magic of a well-crafted story. Now, go pour yourself a glass of lemonade and get to reading it!

Release date: October, 2010

Things to think about as you read Moon Over Manifest:
-Mood and setting
-Narrator, tone and voice

You might also like...
Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse
Journey to the River Sea by Eva Ibbotson

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Review: Mockingbird


by Kathryn Erskine

From the moment we are born, we begin learning. We watch the adults around us and mimic their actions and, slowly but surely, start to get the hang of the basics--sitting up, crawling, walking, talking. There is a whole other set of skills that most of us pick up naturally, not really having to consciously learn or practice them--the skill of recognizing when someone is angry, the skill of seeing that a friend is sad and offering them comfort. But did you ever think of what it would be like if you didn't learn these things? How would your life be different if you had no idea what it meant when someone rolled their eyes at you or lifted the corners of their mouth upward to form a smile?

Welcome to the world of Caitlin Smith. Caitlin, the protagonist of Kathryn Erskine's Mockingbird, is an eleven-year-old girl with Asperger's syndrome. For people with Asperger's, the emotions of those around them are a mysterious and confusing thing. They struggle to identify the emotions of others, and, furthermore, to empathize with them. For example, when Caitlin sees a look on someone's face, she has to think back to a chart of different faces that her counselor, Ms. Brook, has been teaching her. Are the eyebrows raised? Is the mouth frowning? Are the eyes watery? Figuring out the emotion of the person in front of her is like solving a very frustrating puzzle. As you can imagine, this makes social connections very difficult. At the beginning of the book, Caitlin has no friends. And it certainly does not seem hopeful that Caitlin is coming to the end of fifth grade, right when any kid's social life starts to get a whole lot more complicated. Middle school: mean girls, cliques, in-crowds. If identifying a smile is tough, imagine trying to figure out sarcasm!

It doesn't stop there. When you meet Caitlin at the beginning of Mockingbird, you soon figure out that she and her father have just suffered a horrible tragedy--the death of her older brother Devon. Kathryn Erskine does a beautiful job of "showing" rather than "telling" in this book. The reader experiences everything in the novel through Caitlin's eyes. This is especially powerful because very often, Caitlin does not understand the feelings of those around her. Caitlin describes the things they do and say, the tiny movements of their faces and tremblings in their voices, and although she might not know what they are feeling, the reader does. And it is heart-breaking. So many times, while reading this book, I wanted to reach in and comfort the people around Caitlin, who were so clearly hurting from the loss of Devon.

At other times, I found myself wanting to jump into the book and translate for Caitlin. After a few chapters, you find yourself starting to understand Caitlin's logic. Often, what seems like a completely random tantrum to those around her, makes perfect sense if you understand the thought process that led Caitlin there. You start to realize that Devon was Caitlin's interpreter to the world. Through the memories she shares, you learn that Devon understood her like nobody else. He taught her how to interact with people and he was endlessly patient with her. Without him, it's like she has been abandoned in a foreign land without a map.

It is fascinating and beautiful to watch through Caitlin's eyes as she and her father (and the entire small, Virginia town in which they live) try to heal from the loss of Devon. It makes you thankful for things you never before thought of and it makes you realize that there is no one correct way to grieve. And although Caitlin's Asperger's often acts as an obstacle in her attempts to make connections, at other moments, it makes you question the logic of the "normal" way to act. At times, it is Caitlin's blunt honesty (which often accompanies her misunderstandings of other people's feelings) that leads to breakthroughs in her family's and community's mourning process.

Mockingbird is a very special book. It makes you step back and see the miracle of human closeness. Through Caitlin's observations of the world, you realize that human connections are a joyful, messy, complicated and extraordinary thing and that we should be deeply grateful for them. In one scene, she describes a little boy gathering his friends from around the playground. She watches in wonder and notices how "it's like his friends are tied to him with a string because they run to him from all directions until they all end up in front of me" (p. 95). It is often those who do not have something that can describe it the most beautifully and this is true of Caitlin throughout the book. I felt sad to part with her at the end but also felt thankful for all she had taught me. For anyone who would like to step into the shoes of someone you never thought you could understand, Mockingbird is a must-read.

Release date: April, 2010

Things to think about as you read Mockingbird:
-Point of view and perspective
-Internal conflict
-Narrator tone and voice

You might also like...
Anything But Typical by Nora Raleigh Baskin
A Mango-Shaped Space by Wendy Mass

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Review: When You Reach Me

When You Reach Me

by Rebecca Stead

Oh my goodness. My students were not kidding around when they recommended this one. When I asked them what we should do for a read-aloud together, several very eagerly recommended When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead. What intrigued me was that they couldn't quite peg it as a particular genre. ("It's kind of realistic fiction...but also a fantasy...or sci-fi, maybe? But with mystery too--and it takes place in New York!") Any novel so clearly forging its own genre-path seemed worth a look. I vetoed it as a read-aloud (so many of the kids had already read it), but I made a mental note to check it out. It took me a while, but I finally got around to tracking it down at the bookstore. That was two days ago. Within 48 hours, I had read the book and--voila!--started this blog. (When a book causes you to inadvertently burst aloud, "This is AWE-some!" on a crowded subway car, well, you've just got to share it with people.)

My reading life was probably at its most passionate from the ages of 9-13, and this is a big part of why I love teaching what I do (6th grade Reading, Writing and Social Studies). During those years, I devoured books. Packing for summer camp was always a challenge because it involved an impossibly-heavy duffel bag of books, not one of which, I assured my mom, I could do without. Don't get me wrong, I was a reader through high school and college and continue to be, but there was nothing like the way I completely lost myself in the worlds of the books I read at that age. And even now, as a teacher, I am not nearly as well-versed in middle-grade literature (the teacher-y term we use for books aimed at this age-group) as I would like to be--especially the more recent additions.

Well, When You Reach Me has completely snapped me out of it! I was instantly sucked into this book and I cannot wait to explore more of what has been going on in the last decade of middle-grade reading (and go back and revisit some of my long-lost pals--The Giver, Bridge to Terabithia, Tuck Everlasting--sigh). BUT--don't let me get ahead of myself. Let's talk about When You Reach Me...

The book begins with eleven-year-old Miranda, speaking to a mysterious "you." This "you" has apparently instructed her (through an anonymous note) to write a letter that explains "what happened." This request has Miranda totally perplexed and more and more freaked-out with each event of the book. As the plot unfolds, Miranda realizes that the mysterious note-writer knows things that should be impossible to know. Is she being watched? Is she in danger? Who is leaving these strange notes?

But to make When You Reach Me sound like another thriller or mystery is just too simple. The real beauty of this novel was in the characters. Miranda is so real and likable. She is street-smart and vulnerable at the same time. The novel takes place in New York City (the upper west side) in the late 1970's, but it could easily take place today. In fact, Miranda reminded me constantly of many of my own city-kid students. She's so clever and independent, but, at the same time, loving and sensitive to the feelings of others (in spite of herself, at times). Still stinging from the sudden and confusing end of a deeply close friendship, there were so many moments when my heart hurt for her as she tried to regain her balance and move forward, making new friends, navigating the city and, all the while, trying to figure out those creepy notes. You can't help but like Miranda, and so you end up completely sucked into the mystery, trying to solve it with her.

This book pretty much has it all. It has a mind-boggling mystery, quirky characters, ongoing allusions to the classic A Wrinkle in Time, the heartache and excitement of moving from childhood to adolescence, a pretty fun throwback to the 1970's game show The $20,000 Pyramid, and beautiful moments that crack you wide open and feel like a flashlight landing on the heart of things. Here is one of the loveliest:

"Sometimes you never feel meaner than the moment you stop being mean. It's like how turning on a light makes you realize how dark the room had gotten. And the way you usually act, the things you would have normally done, are like these ghosts everyone can see and pretends not to."
(p. 144)

Miranda has a wisdom that sneaks up and surprises you at the unlikeliest of moments. So (in case you couldn't tell), I highly recommend When You Reach Me. It's a workout for the brain and the heart.

Release date: July, 2009
Newbery Medal Winner, 2010

Things to think about as you read When You Reach Me:
-Setting (both time and place)

You might also like...
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle