Wild Librarian Bookspot

Welcome, book-lover types and interested others! After years of running a bookclub, it's clear that folks need to spread the word about good books ... and bad ones. I'll be uploading as many titles as I can. Read on.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

"Out of My Mind" by Sharon Draper

Once again, I find myself strongly disliking a popular title with good reviews.  Ah well.  Variety (of opinion) is the spice of life.  From the get-go, this book about Melody, an 11 year-old with Cerebral Palsy who is brilliant but nonverbal, reminded me of another book -- "Stuck in Neutral" by Terry Trueman.  In that book, Mr. Trueman created a fictionalized version of his son's inner life -- his son also being a young man with special needs who is nonverbal.  As readers of my blog know, I take real issue when authors attempt to fictionalize their lives, as it often comes off as unrealistic, painting a rosy picture, and glossing over the bumps that go with actual living.  In the case of Mr. Trueman, I couldn't help but wonder if the whole thing wasn't an exercise in wish fulfillment.  In the case of "Out of My Mind", Ms. Draper's writing is far better -- because, well, she's Sharon Draper, and her writing is typically excellent.  My issue with the book is that I didn't feel this was Melody's voice -- it was Ms. Draper's.  Melody beats the odds (significantly, if you look it up) by being someone with Cerebral Palsy who is both nonverbal and brilliant (early on, it is indicated she also has an eidetic memory -- something generally seen in only 2-10% of the the population of kids under 12).  The book doesn't come off as preachy, but it isn't subtle in its messaging, and the observations of Melody sound completely like an adult's version of events, not an 11 year-old, no matter how bright she is.  The story is overly perky in many spots.  I counted 14 exclamation points over one two-page spread.  The sugary build-up to the climax was also "too much" for me.  There are Afterschool Special moments when everything looks like it is about to come to a super-shiny happy conclusion, and then that whips around 180 in a way that makes the ending seem jarring and rushed.  So, in other words, hated it.  Sorry.  A group of kids told me how wwwoooonnnnderfuuuulll it was, so I will defer to them.  As to me, I'll stick with Ms. Draper's other (superior) books (IMHO), such as Copper Sun and Tears of a Tiger.  I just wish, at some point, an author would write the story of the other kids in Melody's Special Ed classroom.  The ones who do have deficits, and yet still live in the world, looking for their place.

"Mosquitoland" by David Arnold

I had the privilege of seeing David Arnold speak with a group of 8th graders recently, and was intrigued by his humor, insight, and obvious smarts.  It was just luck that I happened upon his first book shortly thereafter.  "Mosquitoland" is vaguely reminiscent of Libba Bray's "Going Bovine" and Sharon Creech's "The Wanderer".  It is a travel tale, where the journey is both internal and external.  Written for mature audiences, the free-form flow of prose streams forth from Mim, our protagonist, a 16 year-old girl who is very much a 16 year-old girl.  I really (really, really) love that Mr. Arnold writes her without apology.  She is smart and strong and judgmental and typically all over the place with her emotions.  She doesn't really know who she is, given that her world-view is often limited to the space inside her head.  The journey here opens her eyes to the greater community, and her place in it.  The text is dense, and my "lunch reading" did not suffice.  I found I needed to sit at home, quietly, to absorb it all.  Context is sometimes missing -- intentionally, as the reader is undoubtedly supposed to be in the moment and enjoy the ride, rather than figure it all out at the beginning.  I like Mim, including her faults, and felt as endeared to the characters she comes across as she does.  None of the characters are black and white, a fact that she learns to appreciate throughout the book.  I read the digital version, so not sure if the print includes all the extras, but a series of extras, including an interview with the author, associated music and discussion questions, are worth the read, as is the teaser for his next book, "Kids of Appetite".  Definitely a strong addition to our growing canon of YA authors who don't dumb it down one little bit.  This author is one to watch.

Friday, September 23, 2016

"A Snicker of Magic" by Natalie Lloyd

Awww.  So sweet (and that is not actually a pun, despite the constant reference to ice cream in the book).  Frequently compared to "A Tangle of Knots" this story is actually quite different, but I understand the connections.  There is the syllabic similarity in the titles, a close color scheme in the cover art, and both are solidly "nice" with a nod to magical realism.  That is pretty much where it ends.  "A Snicker of Magic" is an Appalachian tale, pure and simple.  It's got weather, music, colorful legends, unique personalities and a kind of poetic lilt you only hear in a mountain story.  Days are hot, nights are cold, and the setting is a palpable character in and of itself.  Felicity Pickle, our heroine, sees words (think Synesthesia, but more mystical).  She collects them to use as an anchor to keep her heart in one piece as her mother drives the small family around from place to place, never settling down very long  For reasons Felicity doesn't understand, Momma comes "home again" to Midnight Gulch, Tennessee, crashing on the couch with kin until the late summer storms awaken her wandering heart.  In the meantime, Felicity begins to gather clues about herself and her family, coming across a cute boy (Jonah) a mysterious elder (Oliver), a poet (Florentine) and a lot of stories, woven like a quilt around the people of Midnight Gulch.  One thing I really liked was the blend of joy and sadness, making it clear that life isn't so much one thing as it is all things (Spoiler alert -- yes, the dog lives -- nothing bad happens to it).  This was an engaging and fast read, one I would recommend, and one which is likely to have wide appeal.  Most of it is delightful.  I was a tad disappointed that the school only appears in the beginning and end, seemingly inconsequential and nothing more than a device to forward plot points, but other than that, the book "sings."  Complex and simple, a free-flowing, experiential story, I was quite satisfied with it (although hungry ... ice cream is consumed in massive quantities).  Much of it is metaphorical and allusion, but astute readers shouldn't have any trouble seeing its heart.  I'd say two thumbs up, but one hand is reaching for a tub of Chubby Hubby ...

Monday, September 19, 2016

"Meeting Wise: Making the Most of Collaborative Time for Educators" by Kathryn Parker Boudett and Elizabeth A. City

"One of those books" -- a dry, business tome for administrators, this is not.  Boudett and City (who also wrote "Data Wise") got a shout-out from me in the very beginning, for the breezy, fun notes in the Intro about how the book could be read in "determined stints on an exercise bike".  That was quickly followed by an allusion to "Wrinkle in Time" in the first chapter.  Finally, in the end, there is a reference to sitting in a meeting "ordering socks" on your cellphone.  I laughed out loud.  I've never encountered a book of this type that was so real, so accurate, and so "human." Not only a fast read, but very digestable, with takeaways I already plan to use in my meeting planning.  It was short, clear, to the point, had the focus on the right spot -- it was simply terrific.  And I have honestly never said that about a work tome.  I wanted to lend it to half the people in my working group, but I've placed sticky notes on so many sections I don't want to part with it.  Bottom line -- meetings shouldn't be about one-directional input.  It's a revolutionary idea that every one of us who sit in those kinds of meetings knows.  It took these two women to show how a productive meeting can be so much more.

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

"Orbiting Jupiter" by Gary D. Schmidt

This is the third Gary Schmidt book I have read, and the third one I have really, really liked.  All three were different but have a literary quality which draws you in.  Mr. Schmidt is a true wordsmith -- writing the stories he needs to write, making them all accessible yet lyric, simple yet complex.  There is something truly intangible in how he is able to make every story seem real and personal, not to mention creating characters you want to reach out and hug through the pages.  In this story, sixth grade farm-boy Jack gets an eighth grade foster brother named Joseph.  (The name, by the way, is not accidental.  I suspect a biblical connection, although the reference is subtle, at best.)  Joseph has had a hard time of it.  Gary Schmidt often touches on abuse in his books, but does so with a light pen.  The point is made for the older readers in a way which younger readers may miss, but that's okay.  It's part of the whole style.  Take this passage -- elegant in its clarity:  "During the day, the air glistened with hovering ice.  At night, the stars were razor sharp.  At dawn, the sunlight went straight up in a hazy column.  And sunset closed the day with a quick wink."  It is this kind of depth which makes his books so brilliant and universally appreciated.  This novel, a selection in "March Book Madness" last year, was hugely popular with the many Middle School students who read it.  This is good to know, as I would have suspected the emphasis on rural New England life might not appeal to the urban set we have here.  Obviously, "the story" shines through, even if the experience is different from what students here are familiar with.


While Mr. Schmidt's stories often have a dark thread, this one ends on a truly devastating note.  I always struggle with endings like this.  On one hand, you kind of see it coming, on the other, you hope against hope that it "goes another way."  Jacqueline Woodson once said that she writes the endings she has to write, because the characters and the narrative give her no other choice.  So it is, I believe, with Gary Schmidt and this tale.  While hugely sad, it did come off as genuine, and, given the space allusions in the story, a kind of way that the universe works sometimes. 

Once again, Bravo.  Another powerful novel by a skilled writer.

Friday, September 02, 2016

"I Will Always Write Back: How One Letter Changed Two Lives" by Martin Ganda and Caitlin Alifirenka with Liz Welch

Have you ever finished a book and just held it to your heart?  Well, this was "one of those" for me.  Besides being a terrific story, this did exactly what I have been railing about for months -- kept a real story real.  Caitlin is a young girl not particularly thrilled with school when her teacher asks for volunteers to write to pen-pals in different parts of the world.  Caitlin picks Zimbabwe because the name sounds interesting.  The recipient of her letter?  A boy named Martin Ganda, who is at the top of his class in his very impoverished corner of the world.  What follows is a two person narrative about their lives over the years, showing not only how their friendship grew, but what their worlds were comprised of.  Understanding each other gave Martin, and his whole family, a way "out" of a difficult existence.  For Caitlin, her world-view exploded upon realizing that her existence was privileged in comparison to children of some other nations.  The story is NOT fictionalized.  It's the recollections of Caitlin and Martin as unvarnished as possible.  The narrative includes all the warts and realities which accompany an actual biography or memoir.  Caitlin doesn't shy away from discussing a somewhat shallow focus on the social aspects of her teen years and a boyfriend who didn't measure up.  Martin is honest about the abject poverty in his war-torn nation and cultural aspects of his life (like the relationship between his parents) which might make some readers shake their heads.  In a fiction book, some of this would have been glossed over.  Here, without getting into gritty details, the facts are laid out in a way which most kids will "get".  Things do turn out okay, but this is a story with shadings, not black and white.  Young people will understand the story, older people will feel the nuances.  It is powerful, joyous and sad, all at once.  Four hankies by the end.  Bravo, Brava, to Martin and Caitlin, with a significant tip of the rabbit ears to Ms. Welch, for telling it "like it is."

Friday, August 19, 2016

"Fish in a Tree" by Lynda Mullaly Hunt

Flashback, 1970s.  Ally can't read, doesn't have friends, and hates school.  She falls in with other oddballs, Keisha, the only black girl in the class, and Albert, who is obsessed with Star Trek, the original series.  The problem with this problem novel?  It's not set in the 1970s.  The true problem?  This is yet another one of those books where the author is exercising some personal demons by writing a "fictional" novel which is clearly autobiographical (which Ms. Hunt openly admits to in the end-notes).  This is a personal beef, but I really dislike it when real life is disguised as fiction.  In my mind, it creates stories which are flat, or idealized, or simply unrealistic.  "Fish in a Tree" hit the trifecta.  First, it goes through chapter after chapter of Ally, the main character, feeling awful.  At first, you want to have sympathy, but after a while, I really wanted the story to move forward (at 266 pages, it is far longer, IMHO, than it needs to be).  The mean girls are mean, the oddball kids are odd, but there is little fleshing out -- the author may have seen these characters in her mind because she experienced them, but it didn't translate onto the page.  Shay, the ultimate mean girl, has all the dimension of a mustachioed villain from a 1920s silent film.  Or any character from a CW TV show.  The one Asian character, Suki, is as stereotypical as it comes, right down to "honoring Grandfather" and her pigeon English.  The ending is all flower and roses, like any after-school special from 1973 -- everything works out just great and goodness wins.  The biggest distraction for me, however, was the setting.  There are brief references to technology -- information is occasionally Googled and, in the end, Dad is Skyped, but by and large, this didn't feel like a contemporary story.  No one has a cellphone and cyberbullying doesn't make any kind of showing.  There is Albert's obsession -- it's hard to believe a kid with few resources would know of Star Trek, the original series, much less be watching it on television (as a confirmed Trekkie, I can promise you it only came back to cable very, very recently, thanks to the new films, and would be hard to find in a small-town setting) and the whole school structure seems dated.  A kid shows up with bruises every day and Social Services isn't called immediately?  Lastly, every mention of Albert's black t-shirt with white lettering saying "Flint" confused me.  He explains it as a Star Trek reference, and it is eventually used as as a Science gag, but how could you have a character in 2016 wear a shirt like that and not be referencing Flint, Michigan, and the racial struggles epitomized there?

Here is what I wish -- that Ms. Hunt, Mr. Gantos, and all the other authors who have written these pseudo fiction tales would just own up and write a real memoir -- for kids.  Who says that young people can only digest a story if it is fictionalized?  Who says young people can't understand the power of a personal narrative when it comes to life struggles?  The issues Dyslexic kids face is very real, and haven't we learned that being open and honest with people is the best way to tell a story?  This is another one of those books written for adults, who, with our bleeding hearts, will hand it out to every kid we think "needs" it.  Sadly, most of those kids who might benefit from the story won't be able to read this lengthy tome.  Maybe next time, authors like this can write something real.

"The Terrible Two" by Jory John and Mac Barnett, illustrated by Kevin Cornell

What an absolute blast to read this fun, smart, unexpected book!  A real refresher after some long/serious stuff.  It is easy to see why kids are flocking to this title, by popular author Mac Barnett and up-and-comer Jory John (author of "All My Friends are Dead" books).  The tale of a prankster who is out-pranked by a mysterious visionary when he transfers schools, the kids here take on Peanuts-like personas with very adult reflections on the world around them.  It works.  The humor functions on all levels, from laugh-out-loud to more subtle snickering.  The drawings add to the Charlie Brown-esque feeling of our protagonist, Miles Murphy.  The cows were a constant giggle.  A definite winner.  Read, smile, enjoy.

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

"All American Boys" by Jason Reynolds and Brandan Kiely

McCormick's "Sold" may have been devastating to read, but this one was viscerally painful -- getting inside the head of a young black man beaten by a police officer.  While Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely may have known how topical their award-winning book would be as they were writing it, the impact of the story in yet another summer of police shootings of black men was stunning as a read.  Taking place in a ubiquitous "Springfield, USA" we have the tale of two high school students.  One is Rashad, a black ROTC kid with a stern father.  He goes into a store to buy some chips before heading to a party, collides with a white woman and is beaten by a police officer who believes he was trying to steal from the store and assaulted the woman.  The other is Quinn, a white basketball player whose military father died in service, heading to the same party, when he sees the cop pounding Rashad into the pavement.  Problem -- the cop is the older brother of Quinn's best friend, and has been a mentor to Quinn after his father's death.  Told in alternating chapters, with each section being a day in a single week, the changing perspectives bring the entire national conversation front and center, covering all perspectives.  In the case of Rashad, this works.  His tale is personal, real, and far more complex than I ever imagined.  For instance, it never occured to me that members of black families might have different takes on an incident like this, or that the victims of police brutality might feel, well, like victims -- ashamed and embarrassed.  In the case of Quinn, however, the book stumbles a bit.  Quinn's "voice" is not consistent.  At times, he reads like an uneducated hick, and other times, he comes off as erudite.  The author voice is clearly inserted from time to time to "make a point" which is a huge pet peeve for me.  On the other hand, Quinn's swings may be part of the teenage male mind.  Having no idea what may be in a teenage male mind (or a few adult male minds) I tried to give Mr. Kiely credit that this is a young man trying to make sense of something which is very hard to make sense of.  The one big regret I had with the story was that Rashad creates a piece of art to work through his pain.  While it is well described, words do not do justice to art, and I would have liked to see a finished version of what Mr. Reynolds had in mind.

This story is black and white (no pun intended).  Rashad is a good kid, he is unarmed, he is not guilty of what he is accused of.  Did he resist?  Unclear, but unimportant.  It is made obvious that the police officer continues to beat him long after he is capable of resisting.  Unfortunately, many of the incidents which have captured national attention are less clear-cut, making the ongoing conversation in our society critical.  This book has the ability to start that conversation, if we are brave enough to have it.  Another new thing I have become aware of in the past month?  The "conversation" that black parents must have with their black sons regarding what to do when stopped by police.  What an awful lesson to learn as a child.  In a clear, plaintive, and resonating voice, this novel successfully asks the question -- why can't everyone be "All American Boys" regardless of skin color?