Tuesday, December 30, 2014

El Deafo by CeCe Bell

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
233 pages

El Deafo is a graphic novel based on author and illustrator Cece Bell's experiences as a child dealing with significant hearing loss. It opens with Cece as a four-year old enjoying her life with her family and her friend Emma until one day she gets extremely sick and is taken to the hospital. She suffers from meningitis and stays in the hospital for a long time to recover. When she gets healthy enough to go home things are different, but she doesn't know what has changed. Soon her parents take her to an audiologist and discover that Cece has lost most of her hearing. The doctor gives her a hearing aid that comes with a pouch and has cords attached to it. The hearing aid helps her, but she has difficulties comprehending words.

Cece goes to a kindergarten class with other deaf children at Fisher school and they learn how to read mouths and take visual cues to help them understand what people are saying. At the end of the summer her family moves away and Cece goes to a new school. She gets a new hearing aid called the Phonic Ear that comes with a microphone her teacher has to wear. She hears her teacher Mrs. Lufton wherever she goes, even when the teacher uses the bathroom, which makes her giggle. She views it as a secret superpower. Cece feels lonely until she becomes friends with Laura. They are best friends in first grade and still friends in second grade, but Cece feels uncomfortable with how bossy Laura is. She doesn't allow Cece to make new friends and tells her what to wear and what to do all the time. On top of that Laura allowed Cece to get bit by her dog and laughed at her. Cece evaluates this friendship and prays they get different teachers in third grade. Cece ends up in a different class and makes a new friend named Ginny. She likes Ginny a lot, but feels like Ginny makes a big deal about her hearing and talks loud and slow to her on purpose. Ginny and Cece have a fallout after Cece yells at Ginny in frustration. They don't talk for a while after that. While Cece is watching television with her older brother and sister Ashley and Laura she sees a character wearing hearing aids just like hers. Someone calls that character "Deafo". When her sister tells her that Cece laughs and decides to call herself "El Deafo" imagining herself in a superhero costume.

Cece is invited to Ginny's sleepover weeks later and Cece is excited to go. There are awkward questions about Cece's deafness at the sleepover initially, but they settle in and have fun. When the guests have fun conversations after the lights are turned off Cece feels left out and asks Ginny's mother to call home. Cece imagines how the sleepover would have went if she were El Deafo. In the beginning of fourth grade a student who knows sign language starts signing to Cece and she is very disturbed, especially after her mother suggests they should learn sign language together. Her mother takes her to sign language classes and Cece hates them. She doesn't want people signaling her out and treating her like she's "special". Cece befriends a third grader named Martha and is relieved that she doesn't appear to know about her hearing problem during a sleepover. But Martha notices that Cece turned off her hearing aids when she started falling asleep and asks her "Did you just turn your hearing aids off on me?" Cece is surprised she knows and Martha tells her that the neighborhood kids told her. Cece decides that Martha can now be her superhero sidekick "True Friend". Over the summer Cece and Martha have lots of fun. New neighbors move in and Cece falls for a boy her age named Mike. Martha talks to him and he says they can use his trampoline. Cece imagines El Deafo hypnotizing Mike into liking her. When Cece and Martha play tag Cece runs into a tree branch and hurts her eye. She starts bleeding and Martha is sick with guilt. Martha avoids her for months after that.

Cece learns that her new teacher is Mrs. Sinklemann and that Mike and Ginny will be in her class. One the first day of school Cece feels weird about giving her teacher the microphone, but she relaxes as she begins to enjoy the class. One day during an exam Cece can't see the words on the board and asks a student next to her to tell her what it says. Mrs. Sinklemann gives her a zero on the test. Cece is distraught when she explains the situation to her mother. On Saturday Cece gets glasses and feels better again. One day in P.E. the teacher drops the microphone and breaks it, leaving Cece without a hearing aid for several weeks. When Cece's dad gives her a cool pencil from a business trip, a mean boy at the bus stop breaks it and makes Cece cry. During school Mike accompanies the mean boy to Cece and makes him say sorry. A new microphone arrives and Cece is genuinely happy when she gives it to Mrs. Sinklemann. Cece and Mike are selected to wear pajamas on stage for a sixth grade presentation. While they are on stage Cece starts laughing and Mike is curious. He asks her what she was laughing about and after some hesitation she reveals that she can hear Mrs. Sinklemann "wherever she is in the entire school building" and she heard her using the bathroom while they were on stage. Mike suggests Cece meet him at his house after school to try something. Cece dreams about their first date on the bus ride home. Mike explains that he'll walk downtown with her microphone to see how powerful it is. As Mike walks away and Cece listens to him other neighborhood kids ask Cece what's going on. When she tells them what she and Mike are doing they are very interested. Cece hears Martha talking with Mike saying that she can't talk to Cece anymore because she hurt her eye.

When Mike and Martha reach Cece, Cece asks Martha to be friends again. Martha is still scared and leaves. Mike suggests that Cece uses her hearing aid to warn the class when Mrs. Sinklemann is returning after quiet math. The class agrees to Mike's plan and they goof off and party after the teacher leaves the room. Mike asks Cece what Mrs. Sinklemann is doing now and Cece tells him she is using the bathroom. The class thinks that's cool and a girl says she wishes she had a hearing aid too. Cece has a moment of clarity: "It's crazy! For so long, I've wished that I could hear like they do. But I have something they don't have---superpowers! And it's actually fun to share them like this!" She warns them that Mrs. Sinklemann is coming back and everyone returns to their seats and pretends they were doing their math work. Ginny asks Cece why she never told her about her powers. Cece says she doesn't know. Ginny then says "Mike told me to tell you that he was right! You're a hero!" Cece confidently thinks "Of course I'm a hero--I am El Deafo!" A month later the students in Mrs. Sinklemann's class make "Warm Fuzzies" for their friends after a guidance counselor's presentation on a book about feelings. During the activity Cece evaluates her recent feelings and starts to accept herself and the Phonic Ear. She even adds a replica of her hearing aids on her fuzzies bag. She gives fuzzies to Mike, Ginny, and even Laura. On the school ride home she gives her favorite fuzzy to Martha who sits next to her on the bus. Cece tells Martha that they should start over and that's she tough. Martha finally agrees to be friends again and Cece finally tells Martha about El Deafo and her sidekick True Friend.

Monday, September 15, 2014

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
232 pages

Madeleine L' Engle's Newberry Medal award-winning children's classic opens with the main character Meg Murry being afraid of a late night thunderstorm in her attic bedroom. She goes downstairs to relieve her anxiety and finds her five-year old prodigy brother Charles Wallace expecting her. He has prepared milk for her and her mother, Mrs. Murry, who comes in shortly afterwards. While they are eating sandwiches their dog Fortinbras growls alerting Mrs. Murry that someone is outside. She lets in a strange old lady named Mrs Whatsit, who Charles Wallace had met earlier. Meg makes Mrs Whatsit a tuna fish sandwich though she is suspicious of her. Mrs Whatsit informs Mrs. Murry that there is such thing as a tesseract.

At school the next day Meg gets upset and snaps at the principal when he asks her questions about her father. She tells Principal Jenkins that her father is coming home and that she'll believe he's not when her mother tells her so. When Meg goes home Charles Wallace takes her to Mrs Whatsit's house. There they see high school student Calvin O'Keefe and Charles Wallace is suspicious of him. After Calvin explains that he is a "biological sport" who felt compelled to be here, Charles Wallace decides it is okay to have him meet Mrs Whatsit. When they go inside the home they meet Mrs Who. She greets them and says it's almost time to get their father, but not yet. Meg and Charles Wallace invite Calvin to eat dinner with them. In the Murry home Calvin feels like he truly belongs for the first time in his life. Meg tells Calvin about her father and the details surrounding his disappearance while working on a top secret project for the government. Charles Wallace interjects and announces it is time for them to go. Mrs Whatsit and Mrs Who suddenly appear and they hear the voice of Mrs Which. Meg feels like she is being yanked away and then she doesn't feel her physical being at all. For a short time she can see nothing and when she feels her body again she hears Calvin and Charles Wallace asking Mrs Which where she is. Meg materializes on a new planet named Uriel, that is "the third planet of the star Malak in the spiral nebula Messier 101."

Mrs Whatsit explains to the children that they can tesser to different planets in the universe. Then she transforms into a white centaur-like creature and flies the children to the top of the mountains in Uriel to show them a dark shadow called The Black Thing that all the universe is fighting against. Mrs Whatsit reveals to Meg and Charles Wallace that their father is beyond the shadow and is fighting it. She flies them back to Mrs Who and Mrs Which and they describe the way they travel  through the fifth dimension called a tesseract. Next the children are tessered to a planet where they meet a being who can see the future named the Happy Medium. She shows the children their homes on Earth. When Meg sees her mother writing a letter to her father and looking unhappy, she becomes angry and demands to go to her father immediately. Mrs Which tessers them to another planet named Camazotz and they appear on a hill covered with trees that is overlooking a town similar to a town on Earth. The three old ladies tell the children that they must continue on their own to find Mr. Murry. Mrs Whatsit tells them they will need help, "but all I am allowed to give you is a little talisman. Calvin, your great gift is your ability to communicate, to communicate with all kinds of people. So for you, I will strengthen this gift. Meg, I give you your faults... Charles Wallace, to you I can give only the resilience of your childhood." Mrs Who gives Meg her spectacles saying "Save them for the final moment of peril" and Mrs Which commands them to go into town together and not to separate. Mrs. Whatsit warns Charles that he is in the most danger in Camazotz because of what he is.

Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin walk down into the town and reach rows of houses with children playing in front of each house. They notice something is strange and Charles Wallace points out that all the children are bouncing a ball in the same rhythm at the same exact time. The next moment in each house a woman comes out and calls their children inside and all the kids go inside at the same exact time except one kid who drops his ball. Charles Wallace picks up that ball and knocks on the door of the child's house. The mother opens the door and tells Charles Wallace that her child did not drop the ball and that there hasn't been an "Aberration" in three years. She slams the door in his face after saying he has no papers to come in. Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin continue on and reach a city area with buildings. They see a newspaper boy who is throwing the papers in a robotic fashion. They ask him where they can find out information and the newspaper boy tells them to go to CENTRAL Central Intelligence. The children go to this large building and decide that although it is dangerous they must go inside to find Mr. Murry. A worker inside the CENTRAL Central Intelligence building is astonished by their lack of information and inappropriate questions. He reports them to IT, a mysterious boss-like figure residents of Camazotz seem to fear. The children then walk into a room where there are a lot of machines and reach the end where they see a revolting man with red eyes sitting on a chair on a platform. The man does not open his mouth to speak to them, instead he talks to the children inside their minds.

Charles Wallace is furious with the red eyed man because he is unable to read the man telepathically like he can with most beings. The red eyed man challenges Charles Wallace to look into his eyes and be drawn in to find out who he is. Meg protests and tries to prevent Charles Wallace from being hypnotized, but Charles Wallace insists and succumbs to the power of IT that the red eyed man is possessed by. Charles Wallace then transforms into a brain washed citizen of Camazotz and tells Meg and Calvin that they would be happier and at peace if they submitted to IT as well. Charles Wallace takes them to Mr. Murry's location in another part of the building. They are led to a cell where Mr. Murry is trapped inside of a transparent column. Meg argues with Charles Wallace and then rescues her father by putting on Mrs Who's spectacles. She runs through the column her father is in and wakes him out of his stupor. He rejoices that his daughter there, but remarks that he is trapped. Meg places Mrs Who's spectacles on her father and he leaves the column with her. Charles Wallace orders Meg, Calvin, and Mr. Murry to follow him to IT. Charles Wallace refuses to acknowledge Mr. Murry as his father as they go to a "strange, domelike building." The group meets IT, which turns out to be a large, disembodied brain. IT tries to control their breathing, feelings, and thinking. As IT tries to take Meg and Calvin in, they fight against him. Mr. Murry then tessers them away when Meg is about to be consumed. Meg is paralyzed and feels frozen when she regains consciousness.

She hears her father telling Calvin that he was about to give in to IT when they came to rescue him. He talks about how he came to Camazotz. Meg starts speaking and is angry at her dad for leaving Charles Wallace behind. Suddenly three tall, eyeless creatures with four arms and tentacles for fingers approach. Calvin, Mr. Murry and Meg are frightened, but the creatures speak to them and say they will help Meg recover from being tessered through the Black Thing. One of the creatures picks Meg up and takes her away to heal her. Meg and the creature form a bond overnight and Meg affectionately calls her Aunt Beast. In the morning Aunt Beast takes Meg to a breakfast table where her father and Calvin are discussing how they can get Charles Wallace back. Meg displays anger towards her father as she tries to explain to the creatures who Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Who, and Mrs Which are. As she tries to describe them, the three old ladies appear to speak with Meg, Calvin, and Mr. Murry. They inform Meg that she alone must return to Camazotz to save Charles Wallace. Calvin and Mr. Murry protest, but Meg accepts the task, knowing she is the only one with a strong enough bond to rescue her little brother from IT.

Mrs Whatsit gives Meg her love, Mrs Who quotes a Bible passage and Mrs Which tessers Meg to Camazotz and tells Meg that she has something that IT doesn't have and that is her only weapon. Meg wonders what she has that IT does not have as she walks straight to the building where IT has Charles Wallace under a spell. IT tries to manipulate Meg through Charles Wallace by lying, but when Charles Wallace says that Mrs Whatsit hates you, Meg realizes that she has love and IT does not. She tells Charles Wallace that she loves him repeatedly until Charles Wallace breaks free from IT and runs to Meg and hugs her tightly. They instantly tesser back to Earth where they appear in their twin brothers' vegetable garden still hugging. Mr. Murry and Calvin are there too. The twins and Mrs. Murry are outside walking towards them and run to Mr. Murry when they see him. The family shares a joyful group hug as Calvin smiles at the reunion. Meg looks at Calvin and pulls him into the hug too. Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Who, and Mrs Which appear and tell Meg they don't have time to say goodbye properly because they have something to do.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Miss Daisy is Crazy! by Dan Gutman

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
84 pages

The first book in Dan Gutman's My Weird School Series is Miss Daisy is Crazy. The main character bluntly introduces himself on the first day of school "My name is A.J. I like football and video games, and I hate school." He humorously elaborates "I have learned a lot in my eight years. One thing I learned is that there is no reason why kids should have to go to school. If you ask me, kids can learn all we need to learn by watching tv." A.J.'s attitude toward school is not surprising, however the students in Miss Daisy's class are completely surprised when Miss Daisy responds to A.J. "You know what A.J.? I hate school too." From then on Miss Daisy talks to her students in a way they don't expect and reveals very strange information about herself, including the fact that she can't read, write or do arithmetic.

During lunch time the students speculate that Miss Daisy might not be a real teacher after all because teachers are supposed to know how to read, write and do math. They then decide not to tell anyone the truth about Miss Daisy because they enjoy how weird she is and want her to stay as their teacher. One day Miss Daisy brings her favorite treat bonbons to class and uses the bonbons for the students to help her learn how to do math. When Miss Daisy suddenly incorporates math problems into a discussion about football A.J. interrupts saying "Wait a minute, I thought you told us we were finished with arithmetic." She tells A.J. that they were only talking about football. "Well, okay. Just as long as you weren't trying to sneak arithmetic into our conversation about football." A.J. responded. Then Miss Daisy asks "Would I do that?" and winks at A.J.

After Miss Daisy tells the class that she doesn't know who the first President of the United States is A.J. begins to suspect that his teacher is pretending not to know information. One day A.J. observes that Miss Daisy seems to be reading a paper and he shouts "Hey you're reading!" Miss Daisy denies it, and A.J. shrugs it off. He concludes that if Miss Daisy doesn't know anything then he and his classmates will just have to keep teaching her by working really hard together until the end of the school year. Of course Miss Daisy's plan all along was to get her students interested in their school work, particularly kids like A.J.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Pete the Cat: I Love My White Shoes by Eric Litwin and James Dean

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
40 pages

Pete the Cat: I Love My White Shoes is a joyful and encouraging story with a lovely lesson for children and adults. Pete the Cat is excited because he has brand new white shoes. He's so happy that he sings a song "I love my white shoes, I love my white shoes" as he's walking down the street. But when he accidently steps into a huge pile of strawberries his shoes turn red. Pete the Cat doesn't cry at all, he keeps on walking and singing. He sings "I love my red shoes, I love my red shoes."

Pete the Cate continues walking and singing until he accidently steps in a large pile of blueberries. Pete doesn't cry, he just keeps singing "I love my blue shoes, I love my blue shoes." He sings this until he steps into a big puddle of mud. Pete is still happy and still sings even though his new shoes are now covered with mud. He sings "I love my brown shoes, I love my brown shoes."

Pete the Cat is singing his song until he accidently steps into a large bucket of water. All the red from the strawberries, the blue from the blueberries, and the brown from the mud have washed away and his shoes are white again. But they're wet. Pete the Cat doesn't cry, he just keeps walking along and sings "I love my wet shoes, I love my wet shoes." The lesson that everyone can learn from Pete the Cat's love for his white shoes is that "No matter what you step in, keep on walking along and singing your song because it's all good."

Thursday, June 12, 2014

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars313 pages

John Green's sixth novel The Fault in Our Stars is a sad, funny, hopeful, and charming love story between two teenagers who have been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Hazel Lancaster is 16 years old with thyroid cancer and Augustus Waters is 17 years old who has osteosarcoma. When the novel begins Hazel's mother forces Hazel to go to Support Group because she's worried her daughter is suffering from depression. Hazel wears a cannula and carries around an oxygen tank she calls Phillip to support her weak lungs. Hazel comments that depression is a side effect of dying. She reluctantly goes to Support Group after she gets to record the next episodes of an America's Next Top Model marathon. When Hazel arrives at the church where the Support Group for cancer-stricken youth gather she is immediately annoyed by the leader Paul who always opens a meeting with his testimony about surviving testicular cancer. She sighs with her friend Isaac about the routine of the meetings.
 
Hazel does not expect to meet anyone new and is surprised to see a good-looking boy staring at her. After he keeps staring at her for awhile she stares back at him and he finally looks away. The cute boy introduces himself as Augustus Waters and says he's been cancer free for over a year after a battle with osteosarcoma that led to his right leg being amputated. He tells the group that he fears oblivion and a normally reticent Hazel speaks up saying "There was time before organisms experienced consciousness, and there will be time after. And if the inevitability of human oblivion worries you, I encourage you to ignore it. God knows that’s what everyone else does.” Augustus is impressed and smiles brightly at Hazel. Isaac talks about his upcoming surgery that will remove his remaining eye due to a rare care. When Support Group ends Hazel and Augustus observe Isaac and his girlfriend Monica making out. Hazel feels charmed by Augustus until he pulls a cigarette out. She gets angry, but he explains “It's a metaphor, see: You put the killing thing right between your teeth, but you don't give it the power to do its killing.” Hazel accepts his offer to see V for Vendetta at his house. Hazel meets Gus's parents and they watch the movie. Hazel tells Gus about her favorite book An Imperial Affliction and he gives her his favorite book The Price of Dawn. He wants to see her again, but she says she'll call him after she finishes reading his book. Hazel likes him, but she's scared that she's going to hurt him. Augustus reads An Imperial Affliction and is completely frustrated with its ending or lack thereof. Hazel explains that she's been trying to contact the author Peter Van Houten for years and never got a response. After Isaac gets his eye surgery he is extremely distraught over his girlfriend dumping him when Hazel visits him in the hospital and even when he's released. Augustus reveals that he's been able to correspond with the elusive Peter Van Houten through his assistant Lidewij Vliegenthart. As the days pass Hazel finds herself falling in love with Augustus despite feeling like a "grenade." These worries lead her to briefly obsess over Gus's last girlfriend who died from a brain tumor.
 
Hazel has an emergency medical trip and stays in the Intensive Care Unit for several days. She keeps her distance physically and tells Gus they can't kiss. During a meticulously planned picnic Augustus takes Hazel to a museum park and announces that he's been granted his wish from the Genies to take them to Amsterdam to meet Van Houten. Despite initial pushback from Hazel's doctors, the trip gets approved. When Hazel and her mother arrive to pick up Gus they hear him sobbing and screaming to his parents that it's his life and he can do what he wants. On their plane ride to Amsterdam Gus confesses his love for Hazel with a grand speech: "I'm in love with you, and I'm not in the business of denying myself the simple pleasure of saying true things. I'm in love with you, and I know that love is just a shout into the void, and that oblivion is inevitable, and that we're all doomed and that there will come a day when all our labor has been returned to dust, and I know the sun will swallow the only earth we'll ever have, and I am in love with you.” In Amsterdam Hazel and Gus are treated to a fancy dinner facing the canal by Van Houten. They drink champagne and eat the best food they've ever had. The next day they go to visit Peter Van Houten. He is surprised by their appearance and yells at his assistant to get rid of them. Lidewij invites them in and they learn that Van Houten never wanted them to come and that he's a raging alcoholic. He says cruel things about Hazel's cancer and doesn't answer any of her questions about his book despite Hazel shouting at him. Gus takes Hazel's hand and they leave abruptly. Lidewij quits her job and runs after them. She tells them she's sorry about his behavior and that she arranged the whole visit hoping that it would help Van Houten come out of his drunken stupor. Lidewij takes them to the Anne Frank House. Hazel and Gus passionately kiss when they get to the top floor. They go back to Gus's hotel room and make love for the first time. They spend the next day together sight-seeing, but before they leave Hazel's mother tells Gus they need time to talk. Gus then confesses to Hazel that while she was in the ICU he got a PET scan and his cancer recurred nearly everywhere in his body.
 
Hazel spends every day with Gus as his body deteriorates. Gus's charming personality is badly affected after a hospital stay where he has to start using a wheelchair. In the middle of one night he calls her and tells her he is at a gas station and can't reinsert his G-tube. Hazel sneaks out and meets him. He vomits and starts sobbing and saying he hates himself and his life. She holds his face and comforts him by mentioning the movie they watched together on their plane ride to Amsterdam. A few days later Gus calls Hazel for an emergency Support Group session and tells her to write a eulogy for him. Hazel's mom and dad want her to stay home because she's spent too much time with Gus lately. She yells that Gus asked her to write him a eulogy and that she would be home every day very soon. At the Support Group only Gus and Isaac are there. Isaac reads his eulogy for Gus and pokes fun at his conceited and talkative nature, then closes with "When the scientists of the future show up at my house with robot eyes and they tell me to try them on, I will tell the scientists to screw off, because I do not want to see a world without him." Hazel goes up and reads her eulogy. She tries her best to maintain her composure as she reads about their love story: "I can't talk about our love story, so I will talk about math. I am not a mathematician, but I know this: There are infinite numbers between 0 and 1. There's .1 and .12 and .112 and infinite collection of others. Of course, there is a Bigger infinite set of numbers between 0 and 2, or between 0 and a million. Some infinities are bigger than other infinities. A writer we used to like taught us that. There are days, many of them, when I resent the size of my unbounded set. I want more numbers than I'm likely to get, and God, I want more numbers for Augustus Waters than he got. But, Gus, my love, I cannot tell you how thankful I am for our little infinity. I wouldn't trade it for the world. You gave me a forever within the numbered days, and I'm grateful.” 
 
Augustus dies in the hospital eight days after his pre-funeral. At his real funeral Hazel puts a pack of cigarettes in his casket and kisses him on the cheek. She is shocked to see Van Houten has attended. He tells her that Gus corresponded with him after their trip and told him the only way he'd make up for ruining their visit is by attending his funeral and writing a eulogy for Hazel. At this point Hazel is over Van Houten and calls him a pathetic drunk after Gus's funeral. A week later Hazel goes to Isaac's house and they play a video game that Gus loved. Isaac mentions that Gus was writing something for Hazel, an epilogue to the book she liked. Hazel frantically tries to find out where Gus may have left his writing and visits his house to search his bedroom. She finds nothing, but after a conversation with her friend Kaitlyn she realizes he must have sent it to Van Houten. She contacts Lidewij who returns to Van Houten's place with her boyfriend to retrieve Gus's last letter. She scans the letter and emails it to Hazel, telling her she is mailing it out. Hazel reads the letter where Gus asks Van Houten to add to his eulogy for Hazel or edit it. The letter closes with Gus affirming his love for Hazel and not regretting their time together: “What else? She is so beautiful. You don’t get tired of looking at her. You never worry if she is smarter than you: You know she is. She is funny without ever being mean. I love her. I am so lucky to love her, Van Houten. You don’t get to choose if you get hurt in this world, old man, but you do have some say in who hurts you. I like my choices. I hope she likes hers." Hazel tells Augustus that she likes her choices too.


Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Chronicles of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsburg

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
192 pages

The Chronicles of Harris Burdick is a re-release of Chris Van Allsburg's 1984 picture book The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, but this time there are short stories written with the fourteen illustrations and captions. The fourteen stories are written by a distinguished variety of award-winning children's authors and illustrators, including Kate DiCamillo, Louis Sachar, Jon Scieszka, Stephen King, Walter Dean Myers, and Chris Van Allsburg. The famous authors wrote stories for the pictures and captions that the elusive Harris Burdick never returned to give the publisher so many years ago.

The short story collection opens with the story "Archie Smith, Boy Wonder" with the caption "A tiny voice asked, 'Is he the one?'" Tabitha King's interpretation of this picture is bizarre and confusing. Archie Smith is a baseball player who has an unspecified disability. After he plays a baseball game and goes to bed one night he hears two tiny voices discussing his unique personality. It's unclear whether he is imagining this or if they are real. Archie listens to a baseball game down the street and envisions the baseball sailing over the moon and landing in the bushes. He plans to find the ball the next day. There is an abrupt ending that may leave the reader wondering what the point of the story is.

The second story "Under the Rug" by Jon Scieszka has the caption "Two weeks later and it happened again." The story is funny and slightly creepy. The main character feeds a dust monster under the rug in his living room until it gets too big for him to feed it nonliving trash from his house. Unfortunately it is implied that he was going to feed his wise grandmother to the dust monster at the end, which is ironic given that he decided to do so by finally following her oft-given advice.

The third story "A Strange Day in July" by Sherman Alexie uses the caption "He threw with all his might, but the third stone came skipping back" in a haunting manner. The story features mischievous twins Timmy and Tina who play cruel tricks on strangers, their parents, their teacher, and their classmates. When they decide to walk around with an empty shirt to pretend they have a triplet named Mary Elizabeth, a frightening turn of events at the end of the school day appears to be paranormal punishment for their wicked behavior. The end of the story might disturb some readers.

The fourth story "Missing in Venice" by Gregory Maguire is probably the oddest story in this book. The caption for the illustration, that is also used on the book's cover, "Even with her mighty engines in reverse, the steam liner was pulled further and further into the canal", is cleverly embedded in a weird tale of a boy named Linus who is fed up with his na├»ve stepmother and purposefully strays away from her to get lost. He meets a strange old woman who has witch-like powers and owns a magic ring. Linus steals her ring and must face the consequences of this decision. He inadvertently serves justice to the lawyer who stole the jewels left by his father, and may have become the old woman's apprentice by the story's end.

The fifth story "Another Place, Another Time" by Cory Doctorow is a sad, but hopeful story featuring the caption "If there was an answer, he'd find it there." A young boy named Gilbert is devastated by the sudden loss of is father and sets out on a journey across the ocean on an abandoned rail car in search of the "infinite sideways" he discussed with his friends. Gilbert believes there is a way that people can manipulate time, which he calls a "tyrant." One summer day while traveling on the rail car he reaches a destination that has an alternate reality that might be exactly what he is looking for.

The sixth story "Uninvited Guests" by Jules Fieffer is a suspenseful and engaging interpretation of the caption "His heart was pounding. He was sure he had seen the doorknob turn." The main character is an author and illustrator completely obsessed with his work and sees two characters from his books in his house one day. They lead him to the basement while his house is on fire and he tries to process what is happening to him. Its up to the readers to determine whether the author is hallucinating or not.

The seventh story "The Harp" by Linda Sue Park is a magical and captivating story about an old magician who wants to do one last good deed before retiring. He casts a spell on two sisters named Emma and Frances. Frances turns into a frog and must learn to play a harp in the woods that will achieve a line in William Congreves' quote "Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast / To soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak" or they will remain enchanted. The sisters, who bickered often, learned to work together and soon were able to play songs on the harp together. They break the spell with a young boy named Brian who is mourning the loss of his mother. Brian hears music in the woods and the caption "So it's true he thought, it's really true" is well integrated in the rising action of the tale. There is a lovely twist at the end of the story.

The eighth story "Mr. Linden's Library" by Walter Dean Meyers unimaginatively executes the storyline and caption "He had warned her about the book. Now it was too late." A girl named Carol is curious about a retired merchant seaman named Mr. Linden who spends most of his time reading in his library at home. She notices during a visit to his house that he keeps reading the same page of the same book every time she sees him. When Mr. Linden tells her that some books are not worth reading, Carol sneaks to read his book and finds out that it continues with a new ending each time she reads it. After Mr. Linden passes away Carol realizes that she is never going to be able to stop reading the book Mr. Linden couldn't stop reading.

The ninth story, "The Seven Chairs" by Lois Lowry is a brilliant and profound narrative that pays homage to the power of womanhood. Lowry uses the caption "The fifth one ended up in France" to perfection. The story's exposition of the main character Mary Katherine and her life's journey following her ability to levitate is fascinating and a poignant lesson on identity. The chairs that Mary Elizabeth can levitate with are symbolism of the greater things people have to offer in this world.

The tenth story "The Third-Floor Bedroom" by Kate DiCamillo is written in letter format, a unique style in this book. The caption "It all began when someone left the window open" is haphazardly placed in the tale by the main character Pearlie. Pearlie is battling a sickness that confines her to bed and she writes letters to her brother in the meantime. Her relationship with her aunt improves during this time and Pearle's view of the world changes as she looks at her surroundings in this challenging period of her life.

The eleventh story "Just Desert" by M.T. Anderson is a chilling science-fiction story reminiscent of The Matrix trilogy.  Anderson's interpretation of the caption "She lowered the knife and it grew even brighter" and it's accompanying illustration is far beyond what the reader might expect. A boy named Alex Lee is shocked to discover a few days before his birthday that he is the only real human being in the world and that his life is carefully constructed. His mother always told him not to go past Lunt Street, but when he does by mistake he sees a strange white space on the horizon and eerily vacant houses. He returns to Lunt Street the next day and his suspicions are confirmed when a gas station appears before his eyes while he is in the middle of the road with his bike. When he goes home his family tells him the truth and his mom says his memory will have to be erased again.

The twelfth story "Captain Tory" by Louis Sachar is very charming. A ghost named Captain Tory who is several hundred years old makes routine visits to a donut shop every morning before it opens. A boy named Paul observes Captain Tory through his window at the same time doing the same thing every day. One day Paul is worried when Captain Tory doesn't show up and then gets excited when he sees Captain Tory knocking on his mother's shop door below. Captain Tory asks for lantern fuel and this becomes his new routine. Paul is invited to see Captain Tory leave on his ghost ship one day and the caption "He swung his lantern three times and slowly the schooner appeared" is introduced just as Paul invites Captain Tory to stay with him and his mom. Captain Tory considers this and tells Paul he has to go, but eventually Captain Tory comes to live with Paul and his mother.

The thirteenth story "Oscar and Alphonse" by Chris Van Allsburg adeptly uses the illustration and the caption "She knew it was time to send them back. The caterpillars softly wiggled in her hand, spelling out 'goodbye.'" Alice is the daughter of a family of physicists who are fixated on solving the inscrutable Farkas Conjecture. Her father encouraged her to become a scientist to join him and her brothers in their passion, but Alice preferred to relax with nature. One morning Alice finds two caterpillars floating down a river on a leaf and rescues them. They spell out "thank you" on the rock she places them on. Alice converses with them and tells them she will protect them until they turn into cocoons. She names them Oscar and Alphonse and places them in a jar. Alice goes into her father's work room and the caterpillars tell her they know the answer to the Farkas Conjecture. They start shaping out the answer and Alice transcribes it. Oscar and Alphonse soon tire and tell her they will finish after they rest. When Alice's father and brothers find the paper Alice wrote the portion of the answer on they are amazed and exhilarated. Alice tells them that the caterpillars told her and they were too tired to finish. Her father permits Alice to finish the answer tomorrow. The next day the caterpillars are ready to be cocoons and Alice lets them go back outside without finishing the Farkas Conjecture.

The fourteenth story "The House on Maple Street" by Stephen King has the interesting caption, "It was perfect lift-off", with a suspenseful story centered around an odd discovery by the Bradbury children in their home. They are perturbed by a crack in a wall upstairs near their stepfather's office that reveals metal. Soon the children surreptitiously find metal is growing all throughout the house. The eldest Trent figures out from seeing a timer in the cellar that the house is turning into a rocket. Trent and the oldest sister use this information to plan an escape for their mother and siblings from their tyrannical stepfather. On the day the rocket is scheduled to take off Trent locks his stepfather in the house and watches on the sidewalk as the house lifts off into space with his brother and sisters.
 

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made by Stephen Pastis

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
294 pages

Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made by Stephen Pastis is the hilarious story of a young detective attempting to solve crimes while facing his so called arch nemesis, sneaking behind his mother's back, pandering to his polar bear partner, and avoiding retention at school. Timmy Failure opens with the funniest line ever: "It's harder to drive a polar bear into somebody's living room than you think." From there on Timmy Failure never ceases to make the reader smile with his over-the-top confidence, his lack of awareness and single-minded determination to defame the character of his competition, Corrina Corrina aka the "Weevil Bun."

 Timmy Failure explains that his last name was once Fayleure, but it was changed to Failure. He insists that he is not a failure--in fact he's the best detective in town or "perhaps the nation." He is the founder and CEO of his own detective company, Failure Inc. Despite his office being in his mother's closet and the fact that he hasn't correctly solved any of his cases (though he believes he did), Timmy knows he's going to have a multi-billion dollar detective corporation one day. Timmy's blind confidence rubs off on the reader even though his first case involving stolen candy is botched in a matter of seconds when Timmy concludes that the obvious culprit has an alibi. Timmy writes short detective notes that will make you laugh out loud and shake your head, such as "Work of Monkeys?" and "TP...Tiny People?" when he's called to investigate a home that was trashed with toilet paper.

The best part about Timmy Failure is his commitment to his company and his business partner Total, a lazy and understandably not very cooperative polar bear. Timmy faces severe punishment when he loses his mother's beloved Segway, yet he comes up with a plan to get it back before his mother finds out it is missing. His initial plan involves his academically gifted best friend Rollo Tookus, but after Rollo spends the night inside a bank safe Timmy moves on to another haphazard scheme. He recruits Molly Maskins, a tangerine smelling classmate, to put on a fake play where the Segway is supposed to be a part of the show. Molly becomes a nuisance when she takes advantage of Timmy's distress by making incessant romantic overtures. When Timmy's mother finds out that the play is fraudulent and that Timmy is failing in school, she shuts down his company and forces his to stay home and do his school work instead of doing what he loves. Timmy also loses his business partner when Total is suddenly shipped to the local zoo.

The ensuing events include Timmy confiscating Corrina Corrina's journal to collect "evidence" to prove that she's stolen his mom's Segway, a botched attempt to free Total from the zoo, and Timmy driving a car into his teacher's living room. Everything appears to be a disaster, but Timmy ends up getting his company and his polar bear back and improving his grades at school. By the end of the novel Timmy solves all his cases by alleging that Molly Maskins was responsible for the crimes. Timmy's logic makes perfect sense if you understand the workings of his unique, oddly brilliant mind. The first Timmy Failure novel is a pure comical delight and the best children's book released in years.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

When Marian Sang: The True Recital of Marian Anderson by Pam Munoz Ryan

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
40 pages

When Marian Sang is the beautiful, inspiring true story of singing icon Marian Anderson and her work that inspired millions around the world and broke crucial racial barriers in the 20th century. Marian loved to sing since she was a little girl and impressed the choir director at Union Baptist Church before she was eight years old. Soon Marian was performing in front of many audiences among the black church community in Philadelphia who were in awe of her brilliant contralto.

Marian wanted to go to music school to hone her singing talent. When she was eighteen years old she went to a music school to fill out an application, but the white girl at the counter told her that they don't take colored people. This was heartbreaking for Marian, but continued to sing and traveled around the U.S. to perform. Many times Marian had to sing twice to separate audiences, one black and one white. Marian faced many prejudices, but she still continued to pursue her passion. Her breakthrough came when she auditioned for famous music teacher Giuseppe Boghetti. Initially he told her that he didn't take new students, but when he heard her sing he decided to work with her. He said he'd only need to work with her two years and then she'd be able to sing anywhere. Marian's community helped her raise money for the lessons and soon she learned to sing songs in different languages, including singing Italian opera scenes with Mr. Boghetti.

Marian wanted to learn more about the languages she sang in her lessons and decided to travel to Europe to broaden her horizons and break free from the limitations of black people in the U.S. She went overseas in 1927 and was invited to perform in numerous countries in Europe including Sweden, Denmark, Finland, France, England and Norway. Marian's voice was greatly praised wherever she went. Marian returned to America as a world-renowned singer. However she had to face the realities of the race problem in her country when she was unable to book a concert at Constitution Hall because of a "white performers only" policy. Marian continued to face rejections for her performances due to the color of her skin until President Franklin approved of Marian's invitation to sing at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday. Marian sang in front of an integrated audience of 75,000 people at the Lincoln Memorial and made history. The audience cheered for her and wanted to her hear sing more after she performed several songs.

Afterwards Marian continued to sing around the world for famous politicians, kings, composers, and musicians. She was a beacon of light for her segregated country. The only dream Marian had not fulfilled was her dream to sing at the Metropolitan Opera. No black person had ever sung there. One day Marian received her invitation. She was nervous, but her voice was strong. Marian opened her mouth to sing on stage and made history once again. Marian's life is a testament to the power of humility and resilience. The transformative ability of her amazing voice to unite people of all colors and backgrounds torn a part by prejudices makes When Marian Sang a profoundly inspirational story.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Aunt Harriet's Underground Railroad in the Sky by Faith Ringgold

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
32 pages

Faith Ringgold's second children's book follows Cassie, the main character of Tar Beach, and her baby brother Be Be on their journey through the Underground Railroad. Their journey started when they were flying one night and encountered a train in the sky. A woman wearing a conductor's uniform came out and called "All aboard!" Suddenly hundreds of people appear and get on the train, including Be Be. Cassie didn't want to go on the train and was frightened Be Be would never return after the train disappeared. The conductor's voice introduced herself as Harriet Tubman, called Aunt Harriet, and told her that the train would lead the slaves to freedom.

Aunt Harriet told Cassie about slavery and how slaves were treated. Then she informed Cassie that she would have to follow her brother on foot to Canada to see him again. She would have to use a passage that many slaves followed in the Underground Railroad. Cassie began at a slave plantation and had to follow a trail through the woods quietly to avoid being caught by bounty hunters. Along the way Cassie reached safe houses and other "conductors" who would direct her to her next destination. Along the way Aunt Harriet would sing a song of Moses to signal Cassie to keep going. There was a house with a quilt decorated with a star on it symbolizing it was a haven for escaped slaves. While Cassie hides in a cemetery she sees her brother's toys and baseball card nears a young boy's grave and starts crying, but Aunt Harriet whisper's her the next direction.
 
Cassie arrives at a yellow house in New York and receives a sign saying she is a free born girl from a railroad helper. She then hides out in a secret passage at a shoemaker's house until she gets transported in hidden compartment of a bookbinder's wagon. Once she is let out a funeral parlor, an undertaker hides her in a coffin and a gives her a ride on his hearse to Niagara Falls. When Cassie stops at Niagara Falls she regains her flying ability and is greeting by her brother, who is carrying a newborn baby he helped on his journey named Freedom, and Aunt Harriet along with many women dressed in white rejoicing in their safe reunion and escape. Cassie and Be Be hug each other and Be Be tells Cassie he now knows what their great-great-great grandparents went through. There was a huge celebration and feast for Aunt Harriet on the 100th anniversary of her leading her people to freedom.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters: An African Tale by John Steptoe

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
32 pages

Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters is an African tale about two daughters named Manyara and Nyasha. The magically evocative story has a moral about the importance of humility and kindness. Nyasha and Manyara are the pride of their father for their beauty and character. Mufaro is unaware that Manyara mistreats her sister Nyasha behind his back. Nyasha doesn't understand why her sister is mean to her and silently accepts Manyara's cruel words in order not to trouble their father. Nyasha is praised by the people of her village for being kind and they believe the crops she tends to in her garden are the most bountiful in the land because of her singing. Nyasha befriends a small garden snake named Nyoka and sings to him.

One day the King announced that he would choose the most worthy and beautiful of woman in the land to be his queen. Mufaro is happy because he knows that either Manyara or Nyasha will be chosen. Manyara did not want to compete with Nyasha and decided to leave her village in the middle of the night ahead of her father's wedding party to reach the King first. Manyara traveled through the forest and met a hungry little boy who asked her for food, but she refused, telling him she only had lunch for herself. Manyara then met an old woman who told her that she would see trees ahead who would laugh at her and that she shouldn't laugh back at the trees. She also said Manyara would meet a man with his head under his arm and to be polite to him. Manyara encountered the laughing trees and the man holding his head and laughed back at the trees while ignoring the head-holding man. Manyara reasoned that she was going to be queen and didn't need to acknowledge those who can't serve her.
 
In the morning Mufaro's wedding party panicked over Manyara's disappearance and looked all over for her. When they saw her tracks in the forest they figured she must have went to the city before them. Mufaro's party began their journey to the city and along the way Nyasha fed the same hungry boy Manyara refused to give her lunch to and she gave the old woman in the forest a pouch of sunflower seeds. When Mufaro's party reached the city of the King, Nyasha was humbled by its beauty and felt she would be able to leave her village to live there. Mufaro and Nyasha entered the city gates and met a screaming Manyara who warned Nyasha not to enter the King's chamber because there was a five-headed monster in there. She said the monster knew her character faults and was not pleased with her and begged Nyasha not to enter for her safety. Nyasha chose to go ahead and entered the chamber. She was delighted to see Nyoka, her garden snake friend. Nyoka suddenly transformed into the King and told Nyasha that he was also the hungry little boy and the old woman. He said he knew she was the most worthy woman in the land and asked her to be his queen. Nyasha agreed to marry him. Mufaro was happy because his daughter Nyasha was the queen and his daughter Manyara was the queen's servant.