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Alabama Moon

Alabama Moon by Watt Key

Farrar, Straus & Giroux; September 2006; 304 pp; $16.00 HC

978-0374301842

Core Audience: Boys 9+; readers who loved Hatchet or Holes; paranoid survivalists

Strengths: Incredibly vivid writing; a charming and original hero in the spirit of Huck Finn

First, let me say that this review is way overdue, because like Susan Pfeffer’s Life as We Knew It, this book is at the absolute top of my favorites from 2006, and I’ve been recommending it to everyone except the faithful readers of this blog, unfortunately. This was an egregious oversight, because I can’t say enough good things about this book. This book was recently awarded the E.B. White Read Aloud Award by ABC’s independent booksellers, and it sure deserves it. It grabs you by the throat from the first paragraph, and doesn’t let go.

Written by first-time author Watt Key, Alabama Moon is the story of ten year old Moon who has spent his entire life deep in the Alabama woods with his survivalist father. He knows everything about taking care of himself in the wild from hunting food to building a shelter, but he has never spent much time in the company of strangers. When Moon’s father dies after breaking a leg, his last piece of advice is for Moon to go to Alaska to find others like them. Of course, as soon as Moon sets foot outside of the woods, he finds himself caught up in a world of trouble, and he must figure out a way to make his skills work for him when he has no experience of society.

This novel is amazing both for the originality of its voice, and the fine line it treads between poignant drama and the particular comedy that comes from the clash of two cultures. It is a testament to Watt Key’s writing that he is able to give Moon the complexity of character where his rebelliousness, his vulnerability, and his self-reliance show through in equal measure. The book is full of authentic detail and woodcraft, and boy readers in particular will get plenty of vicarious enjoyment out of Moon’s skills. (My favorite—making a hat worthy of Davy Crockett from the butt-end of a white tailed deer.) Moon is so irrepressible, readers are quickly in his corner as he confronts and rejects the expectations society has for him. In the tradition of Huck Finn and other fine iconoclasts, Moon just will not be kept down.

Of course, in the end we want for Moon what he wants for himself—a place in the world where he belongs. As a first time author, Watt Key has written a remarkable book, and although its most obvious appeal is for middle grade boys, this book deserves a much wider readership. Afterall, the themes of family, friendship, and belonging resonate far beyond the Alabama woods.

Get thee to a bookstore.

Rating:9.75

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Dragon Slippers

Dragon Slippers, by Jessica Day George

Bloomsbury; March 2007; 336 pp; $16.95 HC

978-1599900575

Core Audience: Girls 10+; Dragon lovers; the shoe obsessed

Strengths: Strong saucy girl as central character; unexpected twist on the fairytale genre

Creel hasn’t been dealt the best hand in life. Her mother, a skilled seamstress, and her father, a struggling farmer, have died of a fever leaving her in the hands of a conniving aunt. As if that wasn’t bad enough, her aunt–always looking to work an angle– has decided to sacrifice Creel to the local dragon so that she can be rescued by the prince and the whole extended family can move into the castle once the two are married. After all, this is how it works in a fairytale, right?

Well, there are a couple of problems with this scenario. First, there hasn’t been an actual dragon sighted in the cave near Creel’s village for many years. No one’s really sure he’s there. Second, Creel isn’t the traditional beauty that princes usually go out of their way for. Third, Creel has other ideas about her future, and they don’t involve marrying the pompous local prince and supporting her free-loading family.

It turns out that Creel is a gifted needle-worker in her own right, and she’d like to go to the capitol of the kingdom and seek her fortune there as an artist. But first there is the problem of the Dragon to get over. Creel is smart, and she thinks that perhaps she can talk her way out of the situation and gain a piece of his hoard in the bargain. Well, things don’t go quite as planned. There is a dragon in the cave, but it turns out that he and the other dragons of the kingdom don’t want anything to do with humans. He’d rather stay at home and hoard his favorite object–shoes. (In fact, all of the dragons in this book hoard something unusual… shoes, dogs, stained glass windows…)

Creel is used to making the best of it, so instead of the gold, she convinces the dragon that she will leave and take the prince with her, sparing him the annoyance of a confrontation, if he will give her any pair of shoes from his hoard. She figures that at least she’ll have a good pair of shoes for her journey. Reluctantly the dragon agrees, and Creel’s choice of the simple blue slippers sets in motion a chain of events that will bring her kingdom to the brink of war. As it turns out, these are no ordinary slippers. Then again, Creel is no ordinary fairytale heroine.

Although there’s no shortage of books in the fairytale genre, I really enjoyed this story because of the offbeat choices Jessica Day George makes with he characters, and the well developed personality of Creel. She is spunky without being overly preachy, and smart without being a smartypants. I especially liked the elements of her creativity, and I LOVED the dragons. Very funny, and very likeable. Readers will really invest in these characters, which will make the escalating conflict toward the end of the book all the more compelling.

This is a fun, fast-moving read, and I suspect this may be the start of a series. If it is, I look forward to another fun Creel-ian adventure.

Rated: 8.0

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How it Happened in Peach Hill

How It Happened in Peach Hill by Marthe Jocelyn

Random House/Wendy Lamb Books; March 2007; 160 pp; $15.99 HC

978-0-375-83701-2

Core Audience: Middle grade readers 9-12; people who are intrigued by the subject of fake spiritualism; Scam artists

Strengths: Solid writing that sucks you in immediately, original scenario with bite

This was a sleeper on my galley pile, and I’m so glad I picked it up because it was one of the more enjoyable reads I’ve had in a long time.

Fifteen year-old Annie has a problem. She and her mother have just moved to town, and Annie would like to settle down for awhile, instead of moving around all the time. Peach Hill is a nice quiet ordinary town, and Annie can see that it has a lot to offer. She’d like to make some friends, go to school, and maybe kiss the boy with shiny black hair. In other words, just be normal. But as it is, this can’t happen because everybody in town thinks she’s a drooling dim witted idiot.

Why?

Because that’s the scam.

Annie’s life isn’t like the other kids’ lives, and her mother isn’t like other mothers. She’s a spiritualist—Madame Caterina—and she’s come to Peach Hill to read palms, foretell the future, speak with the dead, and take the town for all it’s worth. And Annie is her secret weapon. She can hang around the market and the town square, slack-jawed and lazy-eyed, and go unnoticed except for a few sympathetic glances. Little do the people know that she’s collecting secret intelligence on all of the townsfolk that her mother can then use to defraud them.

But one day Annie decides she’s had enough, and she stages her own miraculous healing, thereby outflanking her canny mother, and setting the scene for some of the more remarkable events Peach Hill has seen for a long time. Smart and strong, Annie has been well schooled in the power of lies, and she turns the table to her advantage.

I loved this coming of age story both because of the spunkiness of Annie’s character, and because of the great supporting cast that makes up this small town. The prohibition-era backdrop is filled with wonderful cameos like the scary revival preacher who makes moonshine in his shed, the two town policemen, one small and one large, the truancy officer who would give the shoes off her feet to keep a kid in school, and the mysterious Mr. Poole who lives in a big house on the hill and has some secrets of his own. This would make a great mother/daughter book club choice or a family read-aloud.

Best of all is the freshness of Annie’s voice, which perfectly captures the tension she feels between the cynicism of the life she’s been brought up in, and her longing for a better, more honest life for herself. She knows she could be as good a grifter as her mother; in fact the town desperately wants her to be the miracle he mother claims her to be. But once Annie starts to think about what SHE might like, things take on a whole new perspective.

This is a great novel that I’d recommend to anyone who loves strong characters, a little mystery, unexpected plot twists, and a touch of fraud thrown in for good measure.

Palm reading anyone?

Rated 8.75

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Leap

Leap by Jane Breskin Zalben

Random House; January 2007; 272 pp; $15.99 HC

978-0375838712

Core Audience: Girls and boys 10+ who like stories based in reality

Strengths: Alternating viewpoints; great writing that really captures all of the conflicting emotions of pre-adolescence

These days, there are so many books being written for the middle grade audience that have grand character arcs and larger than life storylines that it is easy for the quieter books to get lost among all the destitute orphans, the young wizards, and the wise-cracking goofballs.

Here is a lovely book about a group of friends growing up in Flushing, Queens, and what happens to their small community one year when one of them has an unexpected accident. It changes not only his life, but it subtly shifts and re-focuses the lives of everyone in the community.

When Daniel almost dies due to an allergic reaction during routine dental surgery in the days after 5th grade graduation, the neighborhood doesn’t know how to react. Handsome, gifted and athletic, Daniel seems like the last boy who could have something bad happen to him. Soon it’s clear that something bad has happened, and worse—it was his best friend’s dad who was doing the surgery. It’s not as if he died, say some, while others don’t know what to think about the fact that Daniel cannot do many of the physical things he could do before, like walk without help, and swim on the school team. It is clear that his life and the lives of his family have changed radically. It’s worse for Krista, who used to be Daniel’s best friend, and who feels guilty for not reaching out to him now even though they aren’t as close as they used to be. Torn between her old allegiances, her family, and her social life, she’s not sure she can do the right thing even though she wants to.

Told in the alternating voices of Daniel and Krista, this novel perfectly captures all of the nuances of that transitional period between childhood and adolescence when identity is fragile, and alliances and feelings shift on a daily basis. In another author’s hands this subject matter could easily go over the edge into melodrama, but Zalben uses a delicate touch and real empathy for her characters which keeps the overall tone hopeful without being saccharine. There is a great supporting cast and excellent development of character and place.

In the end this is a novel about real characters–both kids and adults–having real and complicated emotions, and it perfectly demonstrates the idea that sometimes we can only discover the value in our lives by taking a leap of faith.

So when you get tired of all the hype and silliness, Leap is just the novel to keep it real.

Word.

Rated: 8.0

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Barkbelly

Barkbelly, by Cat Weatherill

Knopf; June 2006; 320 pp; $15.95 HC

978-0375833274

Core Audience: Readers 8+; GREAT family read-aloud

Strengths: Unusual premise; precise and imaginative use of language; unpredictable story arc

Every once in awhile a book comes in that begs to be read simply because as a reader you have no idea where it’s headed. It looks and sounds interesting, and it just keeps on going. This is one of those books.

It starts with a shiny wooden egg that drops from the sky, and lands in a field where it is destined to taken home by a kindly farmer after it knocks him on the head. Of course, the egg is not what it seems, and neither is the story.

Cat Weatherill is a performance storyteller in the UK, and the richness and folksiness of her written language bespeaks her profession. This is the tale of Barkbelly, a wooden boy who springs from the aforementioned egg, and then spends the rest of the novel on an adventure of self-discovery. Strong, and seemingly indestructible, Barkbelly approaches life with enthusiastic curiosity and candor. Although on the surface it seems like there might be some obvious overtones of that other famous wooden boy with the long nose, this story is more imaginative and less preachy, and it sets out for new ground immediately.

Equal parts fairytale, archetype, and adventure, Barkbelly is full of wonderful character names like Anvil Allsop, Candy Pie, Mop Mallory, Farmer Muckledown, and Sir Blunderbuss Tything, as well as marvelous place names like Ashenpeake, Pumbleditch, and Pebbleport. And then there are all of the other whimsical elements that keep unfolding like the giant Golden-Spiked Far Forest [Hedge]hogs with magical powers, the sparkly cast of Carmenaro’s Circus, the giant pots of boiling jam, and the attack by the Pirate Captain Lord Fox. During the course of the story Barkbelly discovers that there are more wooden people like him in the big wide world, but his starry-eyed expectations of finding family do not match the reality he encounters. Each of Barkbelly’s adventures is full of juicy, tongue-pleasing language that just begs to read aloud, and plot twists that fire the imagination.

At its heart, Barkbelly’s tale is really a fable about a boy who runs away from a past mistake, and discovers after much trial and error that the solution to his problem— and his true self—lie back where he started. The journey is necessary to find it out for both the character and the reader, and in the end we all celebrate the humble blessings that are right under our noses.

Rated: 8.5

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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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Mysterious Benedict Society

The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart, illustrated by Carson Ellis

Little, Brown & Co; March 2007; 485 pp; $16.99 HC

978-0-316-05777-6

Core Audience: Boys and girls, ages 8-12; lovers of classic storytelling in the gothic tradition of Joan Aiken

Strengths: Great, adventurous writing full of fun mystery and intrigue

This is one of those rare books that have all of the classic elements that make a timelessly great story. Like the first time I read a story by Joan Aiken, Edward Eager, E. Nesbit, or Roald Dahl, it felt like this book was written just for me, in the most delicious and savory way. This is the first book from newcomer Trenton Lee Stewart, and I’m sure it won’t be the last.

When 11 year-old Reynie Muldoon’s attention is captured one morning by an ad in the paper asking “Are You a Gifted Child looking for Special Opportunities?” he is intrigued. Who would write an ad like this to children, rather than their parents, he thinks. There’s no doubt that Reynie is smart enough, and he is definitely in the market for a Special Opportunity. So off he goes to answer the ad, precisely following all directions.

Although dozens of children show up to answer the ad and take a mind-boggling series of tests, only Reynie and three others—a boy an two girls—are left at the end. They have been brought together by the Mysterious Benedict Society, and they have a job to do. They are a team of pint-sized geniuses who embark on an adventure so mysterious, so devilish, so fiendishly clever and risky that only a team of misfit kids like themselves could pull it off.

This story is packed with irresistible details: a mysterious school on an island run by a sinister man, extraordinary but flawed heroes, spyglasses, secret signals, codes, drippy underground tunnels, bullies that get their comeuppance, plenty of humor, orphans, long-lost parents, acrobatics, mistaken identity, a humorous case of narcolepsy, and so much more. Young readers will get a vicarious thrill as this team of incredibly skilled smarty-pantses overcome danger and strike a blow against an evil authority. The great black and white illustrations at the start of every chapter perfectly capture the quirky gothic flavor of the story.

I loved this book from start to finish, and it is definitely a favorite pick for 2007. The story ends in such a way that I am sure more adventures are coming for The Mysterious Benedict Society, and I can’t wait!

Rated: 9.5

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Larklight

Larklight

By Philip Reeve

Bloomsbury; Sept. 2006; 250 pp; $16.95 HC

1599900203

Core Audience: Children ages 8-12

Strengths: Humor, great blend of genres

Imagine what would have happened if Jules Verne had written a Jane Austen novel for the junior set, and you start to get an inkling of what Larklight by Philip Reeve has in store. It’s a delicious blend of tongue-in-cheek Victorian propriety, comedy and swashbuckling space adventure, revolving around a rambling house called Larklight that just happens to be traveling through space.

As the novel opens, we are introduced to Arthur Mumsby and his sister Myrtle, who live with their father (a slightly forgetful professorial type), in a huge and rambling house containing not a few mysterious secrets. Not much seems to happen here at Larklight. The children fret about their boredom until one day they receive notice that they are to have a visitor. Of course, the nefarious visitor is not what he seems, and soon the siblings are off on an adventure all over the galaxy.

This novel is more evidence that Reeve, who received much critical acclaim for his Hungry City Chronicles, is an author whose imagination produces the most amazing material. He combines genres, time periods, the familiar and the fantastical into an extraordinary romp. What I loved most about it is the offhand way he manages to convince us that it is the most normal thing in the world for these two Victorian children to be living in space in the first place, as if it were no stranger than some sleepy town in the English highlands. A thoroughly original book and tons of fun!

Rated: 8.5

This review originally appeared in the 9/14/06 issue of PW Children’s Bookshelf.

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Hogo Cabret

The Invention of Hugo Cabret

By Brian Selznick

Scholastic Press; March 2007; 544 pp.; $22.99 HC

978-439-81378-5

Core Audience: Readers of all ages who love mystery and magic; will especially appeal to readers ages 9-12 who appreciate graphic novels and anime

Strengths: Innovative mix of purely graphic representation and written story; a whole new approach to chapter book fiction

This book is one of my top picks for 2007, and we’re not even there yet. There is so much to get excited about here that it is difficult to know where to begin.

Let’s start with the design of the book. Here we have a hardcover chapter book that clocks in at a hefty 544 pages, yet this is a case where that old adage about judging a book by its cover is true…. 284 of those pages are luminous full-bleed black and white illustrations that work to tell key passages of the story like a silent movie. In the pages of this book we have pans, jump cuts, close-ups, tracking shots, zooms….. Brian Selznick has managed to take the visual language of film and capture it in the pages of this book. Each page of the book is surrounded by a black border which feels like a frame of film or the edge of a movie screen. The reader will be rolling along, reading a fairly traditional page of text, and then at a key moment of the story, they will be transported into a magic world of purely visual storytelling without words. On other pages, minimal text floats on a mostly white page with the black border, so it is possible to feel as though the pages of the book are flying by, almost as if by magic. As a reader, each new page is a discovery of the most delightful and breathless kind.

And then there is the wonderful story itself, which centers around Hugo Cabret, orphan, clock keeper, sometimes thief, who unbeknownst to anyone is living deep in the walls of a Paris train station where he struggles with his day to day existence. When he meets a girl at the station bookshop, his life is forever changed as he finds all of the various parts of his past and present interlocking like the gears of the clocks he winds. With elements like an angry toy maker, a dusty human automaton, wind up mice, an ancient fire, and a secret abandoned hideaway, The Invention of Hugo Cabret is a truly mysterious hybrid of storytelling forms. Evocative of the gothic stories of ETA Hoffman, the magical early films of the silent era, and the best work of picture book authors like Raymond Briggs and David Weisner, Brian Selznick has created a wonderful masterpiece.

Bravo.

 

Rated: 9.5

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Pickpocket’s Tale

A Pickpocket’s Tale

by Karen Schwabach

Random House, October 2006; 240 pp. ; $15.95 HC

0-375-83379-X

Core Audience: Girls 8-12 who love historical fiction and readers interested in fiction featuring Jewish characters

Strengths: Takes a fresh look at early colonial history

London 1730. Molly, a ten year old orphan, is arrested for being a pickpocket, and is sentenced to seven years in the colonies as an alternative to death. This concise story follows Molly on her difficult ocean journey and her arrival in the New York where she is sold in the slave market as an indentured servant to a Jewish family, the Bells. Mr. Bell is a prosperous businessman, and he and his family are kind to Molly, but Molly is none too sure about anything in this new and unfamiliar world. Determined to get back to London at any cost, Molly must soon decide between her past, and a newfound sense of self in the new colony.

Although it would be easy to overlook, I loved this little novel for several reasons. First, it is filled with vivid descriptions of life in early New York, and of the rites and rituals of early Jewish colonists. I know of no other book that takes a close look at middle-class Jews in early New York. Schwabach obviously did a tremendous amount of research and it shows in her use of language, her descriptions of the buildings and clothing, and the believability of his characterizations. I especially enjoyed the use of “Flash-cant”, and old London dialect developed by thieves so that they could talk without being understood by their marks. The book includes a glossary so that readers can decipher the slang, as well as a good appendix discussing the actual history behind the story. This story will be a solid addition to a section on colonial history, or historical fiction.

Rated: 7.75

 

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