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Savvy by Ingrid Law
Penguin; May 2008; 352 pp; $16.95 HC
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.
The Patron Saint of Butterflies by Cecilia Galante
Bloomsbury; April 2008; 304 pp; $16.95 HC
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.
Pink by Nan Gregory, illustrated by Luc Melanson
Groundwood; July 2007; 32 pp; $17.95 HC
Core Audience: Girls ages 3-10; Anyone who hasn’t gotten the fabulous thing they most wanted but didn’t need
Strengths: Heartbreakingly honest writing; a fresh approach to the subject of PINK
Once in awhile a book comes along that just melts your heart—and not because it is full of puppies, or children in flower costumes, or rhymes about bellybuttons. Rather, it stops you in your tracks because it cuts right to the heart of childhood pain. This is one of those books, especially if you grew up in a family where resources were sometimes outpaced by desire.
Vivi loves pink. She wants nothing more than to own something perfectly, gloriously pink, just like the popular girls. It is all she can think about.
Vivi’s parents love her very much and try to pinkify her life any way they can, but theirs is a family with more creativity than money, and they can’t afford to indulge the material desire that “The Pinks” represent. They try to get Vivi to appreciate all the free pink in the world, but Vivi won’t be derailed. When Vivi tries to express her intense desire, her mother tells her that there is enough pink to go around, and her father praises the “pink in her cheeks.” Vivi feels they don’t understand her.
One day as she is passing the local toy store, she sees the most perfect expression of her desire: a pink bride doll. Vivi doesn’t have enough in her piggy bank to buy it, so she decides to work around the neighborhood for a few months to earn the money. She works hard, and is close to her goal, but when she brags about the doll to “The Pinks” in a fit of playground hubris, she finds her dream has slipped away.
The subtle messages about family love in this book are many. Readers will appreciate Vivi’s parent’s efforts on her behalf, and will prefer the magical creativity of her family even if Vivi doesn’t always. The lovely artwork perfectly depicts the melancholy longing of Vivi’s world, as well as the warmth of her family.
This story is a great jumping off point for discussions of peer pressure, the difference between “want” and “need”, and how difficult it is to envy others who may have more than you. In the end Vivi doesn’t get the object of her desire, but we see her family supporting her as she works through it.
There has been a spate of books for the pink hedonists lately, (Fancy Nancy, Pinkilicious), and as anyone who is living with a Disney-Princess loving two year-old will tell you, they have their place. But it is very nice (and much rarer) to see a book that holds the other side with such sensitivity and grace. This sleeper, which comes from a small Canadian Press, is one of my favorite books of the year.
Dragon Slippers, by Jessica Day George
Bloomsbury; March 2007; 336 pp; $16.95 HC
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.
17 Things i’m not allowed to do anymore by Jenny Offill & Nancy Carpenter
Random House/Schwartz & Wade; December 2006; 32 pp; $15.99 HC
Core Audience: Children 5-8; Adults who remember being less-than-perfect
Strengths: Engaging art; Funny, funny, funny
This book is an ode to every sassy girl who has ever lived. (I am one of those sassy girls, and I bet many of you are as well.) It is a laugh-out-loud litany of one troublesome idea after another and the consequence is always the same… “I am not allowed to (insert idea here) anymore.”
From gluing her brother’s bunny slippers to the floor, to setting Joey Whipple’s shoes on fire with the sun and a magnifying glass, to a reoccurring obsession with beavers, to my favorite—giving her brother the “gift of cauliflower” [by flinging it off his forehead with a fork], the heroine of this picture book is irrepressible.
The artwork in the book is just as lively, with a wonderful combination of pen and ink illustration, collage, and mixed media. It spills across the page with great exuberance, and does an excellent job of working with the text to give you the full flavor of its spirited protagonist.
There are many books about behaving badly, but it is much rarer to find one that celebrates the individual with as much warmth and humor as this one.
Because of the weird 12/26/06 release date, I hope this book doesn’t fall through the cracks and get lost in the shuffle for awards and recognition.
It’s a gem.
How It Happened in Peach Hill by Marthe Jocelyn
Random House/Wendy Lamb Books; March 2007; 160 pp; $15.99 HC
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.
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?
Order this book from your local independent 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.
Lemonade Mouth, by Mark Peter Hughes
Delacorte; March 2007; 352 pp; $15.99 HC
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.
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