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Alabama Moon by Watt Key
Farrar, Straus & Giroux; September 2006; 304 pp; $16.00 HC
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.
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
by Susan Beth Pfeffer
Harcourt, October 2006, $17.00 HC
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.
Sold, by Patricia McCormick
Hyperion; September 2006; 288; $15.99 HC
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.
13 Little Blue Envelopes by Maureen Johnson
HarperCollins; September 2006; 352 pp.;$8.99 PA
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.
Bonus: Check out author Maureen Johnson’s entertaining author page and check out her 13 travel tips among other fun stuff
Tarde de invierno/Winter Afternoon by Jorge Elias Lujan, illustrated by Mandana Sadat
Groundwood Books; September 2006; 32 pp.;$16.95 HC
Core Audience: Children ages 2-6; Bilingual book lovers
Strengths: Lovely jewel-like illustrations, evocative story about the endlessness of waiting
A little girl says goodbye, and then waits at the window for her mother to return. While she waits, she entertains herself with different views and observations of the wintry day outside. This book perfectly captures what happens to time when we are hopefully longing for something to happen. Each moment becomes its own universe full of detail, like the patterns of frost on the windowpane, and the subtle sounds of the surrounding environment.
Mandana Sadat’s rich illustrations make good use of positive and negative space, leaving plenty of white on each page to draw they eye to the details of the artwork which explore interesting abstract perspectives and unexpected shifts in scale. The book is deeply evocative and poetic, and the art and the language perfectly complement each other without being redundant. With text in both Spanish and English together on the same page, this book is one of those rare gems that encourage new observations with each re-reading. The ending of the book is deeply satisfying, as the waiting comes to a fruitful end.
This book is published by a smaller press, so you may have to work harder to find it, but I promise you it is worth it. It will become a treasured favorite.
Okay, let me just say right up front that I am a purist when it comes to Christmas books.
Every year the fall catalogs arrive from publishers packed with hundreds of brand new children’s titles for the holidays, and pretty soon my eyes start to glaze over and I need an insulin shot. Not to say that there aren’t a few gems in there, but man, they are hard to find.
This year–maybe because I’ve got a baby on the way–I’m spending a lot of time parsing the meaning of the holiday and what I want for it to be.
I want wonder.
I want genuine gestures of caring.
I want a pony. (Just kidding.)
Growing up in New England, Christmas is a nostalgic holiday, and I always find myself returning to books that evoke the best parts of it….the snow, the smell of good food, and the comfort of footie pajamas that zip up the front. For me, great books at Christmas are books that capture these qualities of familiarity, warmth, and seasonal ritual.
So here are three favorites–one new, one older, one very old– that get at the essence of what Christmas is in my neck of the woods.
Best wishes to everyone for a happy holiday.
CHRISTMAS POP UP by Robert Sabuda
0439845688; Orchard Books; October 2006; $12.99 mini HC
Speaking of little gems, this petite paper wonder from the engineering genius who brought us THE 12 DAYS OF CHRISTMAS, WINTERS TALE, THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS, and THE CHRISTMAS ALPHABET is every bit as wonderful as its larger holiday cousins, but at a size that is perfect for little hands and stockings. Each letter of the word Christmas is illustrated on a page with an elegant little white pop-up on a color ground. I love Sabuda’s work for its design brilliance, and I never fail to be amazed when I turn the pages of his books. His Christmas titles perfectly capture the sense of enchantment we all want at the holidays. The closest thing to modern sculpture you will find in the pages of a book.
Bonus: Check out Mr. Sabuda’s wonderful webpage and try your hand at making your own pop-ups.
Also, catch Robert Sabuda & Matthew Reinhart’s visit on the Today Show this week.
STOPPING BY THE WOODS ON A SNOWY EVENING by Robert Frost, illustrated by Susan Jeffers
0525467343; Dutton; September 2001; $16.99 HC
This beautiful children’s picture book edition of the Robert Frost poem, first published in 1978, perfectly captures the hush of snow blanketing the woods in a New England blizzard. New Hampshire illustrator Susan Jeffers’s luminous illustrations lend warmth to the poem and fill in the spare text with additional story elements, like feeding the birds and visiting family, that are comforting to young readers. It’s the perfect invitation to slow down and savor the simple pleasures of the season. The beautiful vellum cover and touches of additional color in small details of the pictures make this a seasonal book to be treasured year after year.
‘TWAS THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS by Clement Clark Moore, illustrated by Jessie Wilcox Smith
0395643740; Houghton Mifflin; October 1992; $5.95 PA
Nothing says Christmas like the granddaddy of all holiday poems. There are many, many editions of this classic available, but this is my all-time favorite. Originally published in 1912, this book has the loveliest illustrations by Jessie Wilcox Smith, a groundbreaking illustrator from the early part of the century, and a text design that feels like it just rolled off a letterpress. The best part? It’s so unabashedly red.
A note about editions: Houghton Mifflin just re-issued this book in 2005 with a different cover. If you really prefer the red one like me, you may have to look for it used.
What the Moon Saw, by Laura Resau
Random House; September 2006; 272 pp.; $15.95 HC
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.
365 Penguins, by Jean-Luc Fromental, illustrated by Joëlle Jolivet
Harry Abrams; November 2006; 48 pp; $17.95 HC
Core Audience: Children 4-8; Lovers of retro and modern design; Penguin huggers
Strengths: Beautiful bold artwork, great concept, hysterical writing, large trim size
Imagine one day that the mailman shows up and delivers to you a penguin with a note attached that says “I’m number 1”. It would beg the obvious question, “Number 1 of what?” The answer is 1 out of 365.
Penguins that is.
So begins the hysterical tale of one family who must figure out what to do when a penguin a day is delivered to their house for a whole year. The first one is cute, and then the next few are interesting, but it’s not long before the whole house descends into smelly chaos. Where to put them? What to feed them? How to keep track of them? It’s an organizational nightmare.
Combining bold illustration with counting, rhyming, and plenty of visual play, this book is a treat from start to finish. Joëlle Jolivet’s artwork makes good use of the penguins’ naturally graphic physique, and the restrained palette of black, orange, and white with punches of blue give the whole book an appealing retro flair. Kids will love the exuberance of the illustrations and the math puzzles among the silly slapstick. The over-sized trim size of the book (14.3 x 11.3) will prevent you from putting it in all but the biggest bookshelf, but that’s not such a hardship since it will look just as good on your coffee table.
Listen to Daniel Pinkwater’s review of this book on NPR from 12/16/06
Celebrate Hanukkah, by Deborah Helligman
National Geographic; October 2006; 32 pp.; $15.95 HC
Core Audience: Children ages 4-8
Strengths: Excellent information, beautiful photography, great resource section
There are many books about Hanukkah on the market, but you will not find another one that does such a beautiful job of conveying the incredible diversity and richness of this celebration by people all over the world. Full of spectacular full-bleed photography and an elegant typographic design, this book is an excellent introduction for all children to the celebration of Hanukkah.
Deborah Helligman’s accessible text does a great job of highlighting the key ideas of the celebration, from the rituals, to the food, the games, and the stories. The beautiful photography draws readers in, and conveys a wonderful sense of energy and excitement. At the back of the book, there are great resources, including facts about the holiday, a recipe for making latkes, information about lighting the menorah and playing dreidel, as well as maps, websites, a glossary, and notes on the meaning and message of Hanukkah by Rabbi Shira Stern, who consulted on the book.
As good as contents of the book are, (and they are very good), what makes the book exceptional is the amazing photography and thoughtful design. Showing people and celebrations in Uganda, Peru, India, Ghana, Israel, America, Poland, and Italy, this book goes beyond the holiday to show the incredible diversity of Judaism around the world. At a time when our world is in need of a little understanding about cultures and practices different than our own, this book delivers the goods. Amen.
This book is part of National Geographic’s excellent Holidays Around the World Series, which also has books on Ramadan and Eid Al-Fitr, Thanksgiving, and Diwali.
By Philip Reeve
Bloomsbury; Sept. 2006; 250 pp; $16.95 HC
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!
This review originally appeared in the 9/14/06 issue of PW Children’s Bookshelf.