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savvy

Savvy by Ingrid Law

Penguin; May 2008; 352 pp; $16.95 HC

978-0803733060

Core Audience: Readers 12+ and folks who love predicting award winners

Strengths: Completely original from cover to cover and then some

Twelve-year-old Mibs Beaumont has been counting down the days till her thirteenth birthday—the day her “savvy” will make itself known. Will she be able to create hurricanes like her brother? Or capture wonderful sounds in canning jars like her grandmother? Then Mibs’ father has a terrible accident just before her birthday, and Mibs feels sure that her savvy will be to help her dad. When she stows away on a traveling salesman’s pink bus to try to get to her father’s distant hospital, she finds herself on a madcap odyssey in the heartland of America—one that is as full of unexpected adventure and friendship as Mibs herself. Like some of my other favorite offbeat books of recent years, this story is absolutely original, with detail and a richness in the writing that paves its own way. This novel is also remarkable in the fact that it combines matter-of-fact bible belt imagery and fantastical super-powers in the same story in a way that manages to be neither off-puttingly dogmatic or overly fantastical, but rather sort of dreamy and lyrical. A book as unexpected as its main character and anyone who reads it seems to love it, no matter where they are coming from.

Rating: 9.0

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Patron Saint

The Patron Saint of Butterflies by Cecilia Galante

Bloomsbury; April 2008; 304 pp; $16.95 HC

978-1599902494

Core Audience: Girls 14+ and adult crossover readers

Strengths: Timely subject, amazingly perceptive writing, and unflinching honesty

If you haven’t yet read this book personally, move it up your pile, because this is one of the best reads I’ve chewed through this year. This book is timely in that it centers on two girls being raised in a fundamentalist religious cult, but this book completely steers clear of sensationalism. It’s told in alternating voices of two childhood friends: one girl who now buys the party line, and the other who chafes under it like a wet wool blanket. It is an amazing piece of writing about finding one’s voice, conformity, the nature of family, identity during adolescence, and it has a satisfying and redemptive ending. There were a couple of harrowing moments in the reading where I was so emotionally invested that I had a hard time remembering that I was not actually in the book. The unflinching honesty probably comes from the fact that the author herself was raised in a cult, and has had many years to come to terms with her family’s experience. (The first draft of the book was a memoir which was deemed too dark for sale.) Because of the topic, many folks may need a handsell on this book, but they will not be disappointed. This is a great one for mother-daughter book clubs, and will offer much fodder for discussion.

BONUS: This book will raise may questions about the nature of fiction and memoir for readers, and Cecilia Galante has put some substantial thought into her website where she thoughtfully answers the questions readers often ask.

Rating: 9.5

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Hello faithful readers. This review was actually the VERY FIRST review I posted to pixie stix, and I wrote it first because it was one of my favorite books last year. Unfortunately, that meant that it went up before anyone was regularly reading, and so it has gotten lost.

So, I am bringing it back one more time, BECAUSE IT’S THAT GOOD! It will even keep adults up late–I lost sleep over it–and it’s a great choice for teen book clubs. Go get this book!

Life as We KNew It

Life As We Knew It

by Susan Beth Pfeffer

Harcourt, October 2006, $17.00 HC

0-15-205826-5

Core Audience: Most obvious audience is girls 14+ but should be hand sold to boys because it’s so compelling

Strengths: Authentic writing, vivid post-apocalyptic scenario that will be an eye-opener for modern teens

Young readers today are so used to the comfort of technologies such as cell phones, e-mail, cable television, and the internet that most of them never stop to think about how vulnerable these luxuries are. Let alone things like electricity, food in the supermarket, gas at the gas station, and medical care at the local hospital. What I loved about this book is how effectively it shows how a breakdown in society can slowly strip away our creature comforts one by one until we are reduced to our most basic instincts for survival.

When an asteroid hits the Moon and pushes it closer to the Earth, the environmental catastrophe that results will change life on the planet forever. Unlike typical disaster movies like War of the Worlds or Independence Day, the believability of this book comes from the fact that the events take place over many months, and chronicle what a disaster might look like from the perspective of one family in one community. Told through the diary entries of a normal teen, this novel is so authentically written and so compelling that once you get into it, it will be hard to put it down. Even better, when you do put it down, it will take a few minutes to pull yourself back from the sense of impending disaster that this book will evoke in you. Ultimately, this book delivers a positive message about self-reliance and hidden strength, and it is one of my top picks for the year. Not only is it a great story, but it has an important message to send to young readers about not taking life for granted.

Rated: 9.0

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Sold

Sold, by Patricia McCormick

Hyperion; September 2006; 288; $15.99 HC

0-7868-5171-6

Core Audience: Girls ages 12+

Strengths: Compelling story; spare poetic writing; honest treatment of a difficult topic

Inevitably during awards season, the discussion is as much about books that didn’t get an award as about those who did. Everyone has a short list of favorites that they love and feel should have gotten additional recognition. Here’s one of those books. Sold was a National Book Award finalist, and if I were handing out awards, it would be at the top of my list for more kudos.

Lakshmi is a 13 year-old Nepali girl living in a small mountain village. Her life mostly revolves around the agrarian cycles of her home, like helping her mother and taking care of her pet goat. Although the family is poor, her life is rich with simple pleasures. When the monsoons come and wipe out her family’s rice plantings, her never-do-well stepfather declares that she must go to work to support the family. He negotiates with a glamorous stranger who says that she will take Lakshmi to work for a rich family in the city. What Lakshmi does not know is that her stepfather has just sold her into prostitution. After a long and confusing journey into India, her life descends into a nightmare from which there seems no escape. However, deep down inside her there is a spirit which refuses to be crushed, and she finds a way to endure and ultimately triumph over the situation she finds herself in.

This book is remarkable on many levels. First, there is the story which is meticulously researched, and which has the authenticity of voice to pull a reader right into the heart of Lakshmi’s experience. Then there is the writing, which accomplishes that rare thing: the kind of spareness and poetry that speaks as much in the silences as in the words. Subtle and nuanced, it finds grace in subject matter that could so easily descend into voyeuristic or maudlin melodrama. Thirdly, there is the character of Lakshmi herself, so vulnerable yet so strong. Patricia McCormick has invested her with such humanity that well-cared for readers can really understand her strength, resilience, and her drive to be a good person in the face of unbelievable cruelty. McCormick’s sensitive treatment of Lakshmi’s abuse focuses on her internal narrative, rather than a blow-by-blow recital, making palatable a truly horrific situation.

According to the end notes, nearly 12,000 Nepali girls are sold into sexual slavery in India, and nearly 500,000 children are trafficked in the sex trade globally every year. This is a world-wide problem that needs our attention, and Patricia McCormick has created a moving and lyrical call to arms for readers who may otherwise never hear about it.

Rated: 8.75

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Lemonade Mouth

Lemonade Mouth, by Mark Peter Hughes

Delacorte; March 2007; 352 pp; $15.99 HC

978-0385904049

Core Audience: 14+ readers of both genders

Strengths: Nice blend of characters; told in both male and female voices; good feel for the trials and tribulations of small town high school life

Remember that famous scene in the Breakfast Club? The one where they’re all hanging out in detention? A bunch of kids from all areas of the high school food chain, brought together by circumstance for one fateful moment. Okay—now imagine what would happen if everyone in that room was musical. Including the teacher.

That’s the unexpected jumping-off point for Mark Peter Hughes’ new novel, which chronicles the unlikely rise of five students from the freshman ghetto to teen rock visionaries in a small-town RI high school. Told in the alternating voices of the various main characters, both male and female, this is a story of some students who improvise a song one day in detention out of boredom, using whatever they have on hand. The teacher hears it, and contrary to everyone’s expectations, suggests they try playing together. The five students, who prior to that day have never had much to say to each other, decide to give it a try. In the process they manage to create a band—the aforementioned Lemonade Mouth—that is so original and genius that it starts a little revolution in the school and unseats the popular hierarchy in the process. All of the classic high school archetypes are here: the shy and misunderstood poet, the rebellious transplant, the overachiever, the insecure funny guy, and the bohemian hipster to be, but Hughes manages to flesh them out with thoughtful writing and some very honest situational comedy.

For those of you who read Hughes’ wonderful first novel I Am the Wallpaper (which I adore, by the way. The paperback is coming in February from Random House- 978-0440420460)—you may recognize Wen, who played a peripheral but important role in that story. Here he is front and center, dealing with the discomfort of having a crush on his Dad’s curvaceous new girlfriend, and trying to get through his days in the grind. Although there are passing references to the previous story, this novel is fully independent, but it’s fun to see him in his context if you’ve read the other one.

I’m pleased that Hughes turned in such a strong effort for his second novel. His writing has an offbeat honesty that will put him in the pantheon of great YA writers if he can keep it up. I am especially impressed with his ability to write spicy and believable girls’ voices. This story has just enough teen angst and edginess in it to ring true without crossing any discomfort lines. This is one of those unusual novels that you can recommend to every reader with a clean conscience.

Rated 9.0

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13 littlke blue envelopes

13 Little Blue Envelopes by Maureen Johnson

HarperCollins; September 2006; 352 pp.;$8.99 PA

978-0060541439

Core Audience: Teen girls ages 14+ 

Strengths: Coming of age novel with a strong female lead and an offbeat, mysterious premise 

When 17 year-old Ginny Blackstone receives an illustrated blue envelope with $1,000 cash and directions to buy a backpack and a plane ticket, it isn’t the unusual request that surprises her. Nor is it the list of rules:

  • 1) Bring only what fits in the backpack
  • 2) No phrase books, guidebooks or foreign language aids
  • 3) No extra money
  • 4) No electronic crutches—no cell phone, laptop, no music, no camera. No calling home, and no e-mail.

None of that catches her off-guard because her aunt Peg, who sent the blue envelope, has a reputation for being artistic and a little unpredictable. She’s been abroad for several years, and she has always promised to be there for Ginny as she grows up— a kind of guiding light. This is just the kind of thing she would do. 

What does surprise her is that this happens after her aunt is dead. 

When Ginny follows the directions and shows up as requested at the 4th Noodle restaurant in New York with a full backpack and her ticket to London, she is handed a package with twelve more envelopes and the adventure of a lifetime. Retracing her aunt’s final trip through Europe, and staying with her contacts and friends, Ginny embarks on a journey to uncover the missing period of her aunt’s life, and on the way discover herself in the process. Ginny Blackstone will never be the same. 

Maureen Johnson has written one of the most original teen novels I’ve read in a long time. In a field crowded with heavy stories about abuse, cancer, and other depressing stuff on one end, and morally questionable series titles full of bad behavior and shopping on the other, Ginny Blackstone’s adventure is a breath of fresh air. Although Ginny does have to come to terms with Peg’s death during the course of the story, the focus here is on living; on grabbing life by the horns and not letting go. At once a coming of age novel and a celebration of taking a blind leap, this novel is a great example of the fact that teen fiction doesn’t need to be full of the worst of human behavior to be compelling to its reader. Ginny’s adventure reminds me of nothing so much as a beloved childhood favorite, E.L. Koningsburg’s FROM THE MIXED-UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER. The mystery, the adventure, the offbeat unpredictability, and the authenticity of voice are all here. We should all hope to have such a spirited adventure one day.  

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Bonus: Check out author Maureen Johnson’s entertaining author page and check out her 13 travel tips among other fun stuff

Rated: 8.75 

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What the Moon Saw

What the Moon Saw, by Laura Resau

Random House; September 2006; 272 pp.; $15.95 HC

0-385-73343-7

Core Audience: Girls 10-14; Readers interested in Latin American stories

Strengths: Lovely lyrical writing; Good use of magical realism

Although her name means “clear moon” in Spanish, fourteen year-old Clara Luna feels nothing but muddy and confused on the inside. She lives in a suburb of Baltimore, and although she has everything she needs—a great happy life, parents she adores, lots of cool clothes and gear—nothing in her life seems to make sense to her anymore. She finds herself sneaking out at night to float in a nearby stream and gaze at the moon. She thinks she might be going a tiny bit crazy.

Then one day, near the start of summer vacation, she gets a letter from her grandparents whom she has never met, inviting her to spend the summer with them in the remote highlands of Mexico. Her father, who came to the US as an illegal alien and who later married her Mom and became a citizen, has never been back to his tiny home village. He has also never really talked about his life before coming to the US, but something in Clara is pulling her along. She embarks on a long journey—of distance, self-discovery, and cultural awakening. What she finds in Mexico, in addition to her grandparents and a very different life, is her true self.

Full of lush, poetic writing, and an authentic adolescent voice, this novel will be a wonderful exploration for any girl who feels out of place in her own skin. I particularly loved the relationship between Clara and her grandmother, as the narrative alternated between the present and the past once Clara reaches Mexico. This intergenerational perspective sheds light on Clara’s emotional turmoil, and links the women together in a chain of strength and history. Although a great piece of writing about the Latina experience, this novel should not be recommended only to Latina readers. Every girl will find something that resonates in this novel about life, family, adventure, and self-discovery.

Rated: 8.75

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Black Tattoo

The Black Tattoo

by Sam Enthoven

Razorbill/Penguin; October 2006; 512 pp.; $18.99 HC

1-59514-114-6

Core Audience: 14+; Teen lovers of Gothic drama, the Matrix, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Strengths: Plenty of dark humor, demons, and Matrix-like kung-fu

At 512 pages, this book is not for the faint of heart, but it serves up generous portions of all of the dark imagery that gothic adventure fans will love. Not being a fan of this genre generally, I was pleasantly surprised at this book’s ability to draw me in and keep me interested.

The story focuses on three main characters: Charlie, who is chosen and then possessed by a demon who has designs on taking over the underworld; Jack, Charlie’s best friend who follows Charlie into the underworld to save him; and Esme, a girl trained from childhood to fight the forces of evil, who joins the other two to fulfill her destiny. (Esme, I might add, has an amazing arsenal of special powers, and all of the best kung-fu sequences.) The book takes its name from a tattoo that grows on Charlie when he is possessed, and roils over his skin with sufficient creepiness to keep even the most jaded teens reading. Basically, the novel reads like a screenplay, with plenty of visuals, action, and a fast moving plot that doesn’t ask too many questions. It’s a classic good –vs– evil story, with hell the battleground, and plenty of gooey humor and irony. I especially liked the character of Jack, who has that lovely Jimmy Stewart air of being a normal guy caught up in events he can’t quite believe.

This story won’t change the world, but I thought it was pretty fun, if you can embrace all of the demonic imagery.

Rated: 7

 

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Life as We KNew It
Life As We Knew It

by Susan Beth Pfeffer

Harcourt, October 2006, $17.00 HC

0-15-205826-5

Core Audience: Most obvious audience is girls 14+ but should be hand sold to boys because it’s so compelling

Strengths: Authentic writing, vivid post-apocalyptic scenario that will be an eye-opener for modern teens

Young readers today are so used to the comfort of technologies such as cell phones, e-mail, cable television, and the internet that most of them never stop to think about how vulnerable these luxuries are. Let alone things like electricity, food in the supermarket, gas at the gas station, and medical care at the local hospital. What I loved about this book is how effectively it shows how a breakdown in society can slowly strip away our creature comforts one by one until we are reduced to our most basic instincts for survival.

When an asteroid hits the Moon and pushes it closer to the Earth, the environmental catastrophe that results will change life on the planet forever. Unlike typical disaster movies like War of the Worlds or Independence Day, the believability of this book comes from the fact that the events take place over many months, and chronicle what a disaster might look like from the perspective of one family in one community. Told through the diary entries of a normal teen, this novel is so authentically written and so compelling that once you get into it, it will be hard to put it down. Even better, when you do put it down, it will take a few minutes to pull yourself back from the sense of impending disaster that this book will evoke in you. Ultimately, this book delivers a positive message about self-reliance and hidden strength, and it is one of my top picks for the year. Not only is it a great story, but it has an important message to send to young readers about not taking life for granted.

Rated: 9.0

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Welcome to pixie stix kids pix, the site for reviews and opinions about new and interesting books for children and young adults, by a professional in the children's book industry.

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When I read books they get rated on a 10 point scale. What I like is subjective, but basically I look for great content, excellent design, and fresh ideas. Generally, only books that receive a 7.0 or higher make it on to the site.

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