Monday, October 20, 2014

The Key That Swallowed Joey Pigza

A disclaimer: I read this book as an experiment. I have never read a Joey Pigza book. There are multiple Joey Pigza books out there, even a Newbery Honor Joey Pigza book, but I've never touched 'em. I read this book, because often in Newbery Medal discussions, it is important to remove one's bias toward a novel that is part of a series, as past books in a series should not be considered when arguing for a book. I thought it would be fun to read THE KEY THAT SWALLOWED JOEY PIGZA with no knowledge of any prior Joey Pigza books.

If the Cohen Brothers were to adapt a children's novel, I feel like Joey Pigza would be right up their alley. A little Raising Arizona, a little No Country For Old Men (for kids, of course), THE KEY THAT SWALLOWED JOEY PIGZA is one wild, zany ride. There were so many moments where I wondered if things could get any quirkier or out of control for Joey and just at that moment, chaos and havoc would ensue! I'm not quite sure how Joey survived, let alone baby Carter Junior, but they did!

Joey Pigza is turning his life around. His baby brother Carter Junior has brought joy to his life and he is excited about a fresh start at school. Then postpartum depression sets in for his mother and Joey finds himself sacrificing a return to school for the time being in order to be the man of the house and take care of Carter Junior. Things get worse and worse for Joey as his father enters the picture wanting Carter Junior for himself.

While Joey's off-topic, rambling voice as a child with ADHD is rather impressive (his mother hid his only remaining med patches before admitting herself into the hospital), I immediately realized I was at a disadvantage in appreciating this novel without having any background knowledge on the previous Joey Pigza stories. There were too many lingering questions for me that maybe would be cleared up have I had read earlier installments. For instance, what in the heck is wrong with Joey's father's face? Why is he disfigured? Joey is surely sympathetic and forgiving of his father's past transgressions, but as a new reader, I'm left confused. Joey's father comes off as a cartoony James Bond villain. It's difficult to take the relationship seriously without the backstory.

"Here we go again. Just when I thought one good parent was better than two lousy ones I end up with no parents."

And is Joey's mother struggling with drug abuse? I realize she has checked herself into a hospital for what we are led to believe is postpartum depression (she calls Joey from school threatening to hurt Carter Junior), but it seems as if there is more here. Joey's mother is off, and it doesn't seem to be just the postpartum depression. But again, I don't have any background knowledge on Joey's mom. Gantos does a great job building her character ("A mother is supposed to give love, but I can't because I hate myself and now I'm so full up with self-hate I'm filling him with the overflow") but the potentially intentional feeling that it is more than postpartum depression ailing her is upsetting.

As I said, Joey's voice is pretty incredible, and it's hard not to root for him though. Joey has made me look at some of my own students with more patience and understanding. He has a fantastic positive attitude and is determined to rise above the deck he's been dealt in life. He has support from his blind girlfriend Olivia and their relationship is touching throughout the middle section of the novel, but it's not quite enough to change the overall gloomy, depressing tone of this story.

My issue with the story is not with Gantos's writing. Gantos's writing is very good. My issue with the story is that I couldn't really get over my dislike of the mother and father to appreciate Gantos's writing. A commenter over at Heavy Medal took comfort in the ending of the story, feeling that Joey will be able to rise above whatever trouble he may find himself in in the future. I'm not so sure about that. That isn't the feeling I walked away from this novel feeling. Joey is as proactive as they come (paws-i-tive) but it's only a matter of time before mother and father fall off the wagon again. And Joey has a number of more years at home yet!

Any child struggling to find focus in today's world, may find reprieve and solidarity in Joey Pigza. They could do far worse, in regard to writing and role model.

Final Grade: B

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Fourteenth Goldfish

Kid Lit authors don't come much better than Jenni Holm. Her books have fun characters, are kid-friendly, and are filled with great figurative language. You can usually count on some fun history lessons too!

Holm has also had significant success where the Newbery Medal is concerned. She's made the shortlist three times (OUR ONLY MAY AMELIA, PENNY FROM HEAVEN, and TURTLE IN PARADISE) but has never brought home the gold. Her track record though, could suggest that it is only a matter of time.

At first glance, Holm's latest novel, THE FOURTEENTH GOLDFISH does not appear to be your typical Jenni Holm story. Her novels tend to be so rich in setting and developed in a particular historical time period. THE FOURTEENTH GOLDFISH is technically a work of science-fiction and set in present day. One similarity: it is as character driven as any of her previous novels. Fans of Holm's will not be disappointed.

Ellie is having a rough start to middle school. Her parents have separated and her best friend Brianna is forming new friendships with her volleyball teammates. Ellie is craving companionship but is too proud to admit it. Enter Ellie's grandfather, Melvin. Melvin is a scientist of sorts, obsessed with finding the cure to aging. And he does! In the form of a rare jellyfish that ages backwards. After injecting himself with DNA from the jellyfish, he ages backwards to Ellie's age and is forced to join her in middle school. The result is a heartwarming coming of age story about friendship and the circle of life.

THE FOURTEENTH GOLDFISH took some time to develop for me. Ellie's snarky voice was vintage Holm right out of the gate, but suspending my disbelief and accepting the quirky premise took a little more effort for some reason. The themes Holm seems to be exploring are so deep yet the plot of this story is rather zany. It wasn't a good match at first. In the beginning, Ellie's grandfather appeared so abruptly and his quick-forming relationship with Ellie seemed more of a plot device than anything genuine. By the end of the novel however, that changed. The relationship between Ellie and her grandfather is by far, the strongest element within the book. With her best friend slipping away, the companionship Ellie is seeking comes from the place she least expects it. The relationship between her and Melvin is heartwarming.

Jenni Holm could teach a fine workshop on figurative language. Her first person, prose always fits her character's voice so well. Take the following few examples for instance:

"Nicole has long buttery hair and looks like she should be in a shampoo commercial."

"Middle school is like one of those highway restrooms in the middle of nowhere. It's dirty and smelly, and it's crowded with strange people."

I also love the relationship between Melvin and his daughter, Ellie's mother. I like the comedic irony in Melvin the teenager, not relinquishing his responsibilities as Ellie's mother's father and in her retreating to the role of caretaker and guardian for her teenager father. Their banter provides some hilarious moments, especially as Melvin accompanies her on a date.

It's amazing how much depth Jenni Holm provides this quirky, absurd, Benjamin Button style story. The themes of friendship, family, and mortality are all expertly explored. On the surface level of this story is this bizarre plot about a teenager befriending her mad-scientist grandfather who has injected himself with a special jellyfish that has caused him to age backward. Underneath the absurdity though, is a touching story about finding yourself and the fragile nature of life.

Final Grade: A-

Monday, November 5, 2012

2012 Reading List - Revisited

This school year has been a big one for me. I started work on my Master's Degree. I am in the Educational Leadership program at the University of Northern Iowa. I'm in the Principalship program. It is a 37 credit hour program that takes 2 full years to complete. 425 hours of internship are needed by the end of the two years and I am attempting to accomplish this while still teaching and raising two little rambunctious children!

Suffice it to say, my involvement over at Heavy Medal this year has been almost non-existent. I still read each post and all the comments and I long for the time and expertise to contribute. But I have found that my heart just isn't in it because my time has been allocated elsewhere this year. I've really enjoyed reading a lot of professional works, about teaching and leadership, and found that I have read far to little of this type of work over the last few years as a teacher. But I do miss spending time reading for enjoyment. For fun.

Back in March, I listed 18 titles I was excited to read this year. I feel like I haven't read anything, so I was a little pleased and surprised when I revisited this list and discovered that I had in fact read 7 of them. Not great, but not near as bad as I was expecting. I also have read a few titles from this year that I did not include on that list.

Here are my most recent readings, and a short blurb about what I thought . . .

I would compare Rebecca Stead's LIAR & SPY, to M. Night Shymalan's Unbreakable movie. Both Stead and M. Night had monster success with earlier or first works (WHEN YOU REACH ME, The Sixth Sense). Both Stead and M. Night captivated audiences with their twist endings. Both artists' follow-up works, were highly anticipated. I found both, to be quieter than their predecessors.

I felt like LIAR & SPY was Stead's arthouse flick. Her attempt at a quieter, more subtle work than what WHEN YOU REACH ME turned out to be. I'm not sure Stead would have ever expected WHEN YOU REACH ME to become the blockbuster it did, but it did nonetheless.

I do like Stead's characters and language, and boy can she write New York City, but my problem with LIAR & SPY was that nothing seems to happen. It just didn't pull me in the way WHEN YOU REACH ME did. Maybe it's unfair to compare the two. I'm not sure how the casual reader is going to be able to not do that though. There are so many similarities in the narrative, there's so much mystery to the story, that in the end, I felt more letdown than anything. I also think children will be bored by it. And my 5th graders, devour WHEN YOU REACH ME.

If there's a book I would like to champion for the Newbery Medal this year, despite my limited range of completed readings, it would be Jerry Spinelli's JAKE & LILY. I'm a Spinelli-geek. I love the guy. I have a sentimental connection to MANIAC MAGEE and it probably blurs his work to me. Leaves me biased.

I read early on in the Newbery season that WONDER was "the book" to read/beat. Period. I also read early on that WONDER was "the book" about bullying that kids should read. Period. I have to "wonder" (sorry for the bad pun), if whoever said that had read JAKE & LILY.

I didn't realize before reading it, that JAKE & LILY was about bullying. I didn't think it would cover that territory. When it did, I was blown away at the subtle change in direction of the narrative. I wondered if kids would catch on. So I read it out loud to my 5th graders. They were speechless.

The book starts out with Jake and Lily, two twins, alternating chapters and writing about their connection as twins and friends. Then Jake begins to change and wants to spend time with other friends and Lily has trouble accepting this. My 5th graders strongly disliked Lily during this stage. But Spinelli has a few tricks up his sleeve. And shortly after Jake decides to spend some time away from Lily, Spinelli yanks the tablecloth out from under the plates and silverware and the narrative takes an unexpected turn. Spinelli's language is fun and kid-friendly. The man may be getting up there in years, but he sure knows how to crawl inside the mind of a 12-year-old.

I strongly disagree with whoever said WONDER was the book to read about bullying this year. If your child only reads one book about bullying this year, make sure it's JAKE & LILY.

In an attempt at reading something outside my comfort zone this year, I purchased BOMB: THE RACE TO BUILD AND STEAL THE WORLD'S MOST DANGEROUS WEAPON by Steve Sheinkin on my iPad, without knowing it was raking in the starred reviews from various children's literature magazines. To make Jonathan Hunt happy over at Heavy Medal, I just wanted to make sure I tackled a nonfiction title and this one sounded the most appealing.

Wow. If all nonfiction authors could write at such a breakneck pace, and weave such a taut story, I would read more of it. I couldn't turn the pages fast enough. It reads like a Hollywood screenplay, and I could no doubt, imagine this as a psychological thriller someday playing on the big screen. I was totally sucked in to the narrative, and the most impressive feat, to me, is the number of different angles to this story. There were so many people involved in researching the bomb and building the bomb and then to add to it, the stealing of ideas . . . I devoured this book in mere days. It was fantastic.

If I was handing out grades for these titles, which is something I like to do, I'd give . . .

LIAR & SPY: B

JAKE & LILY: A+

BOMB: A

I've got a nice head start on the work I'll need to complete for my grad class in the next few weeks, so I'm really hoping for the time to read some more of these titles. My wife bought me IN A GLASS GRIMMLY for my birthday, and I can't let it sit on the kitchen table, untouched any longer.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Case of the Deadly Desperados

Shoot-'em-up Westerns are a rare thing in children's literature. It's one sub-genre of the historical fiction canon that I can say I haven't read a lot of. Truth be told, I haven't even encountered many. Lots of historical fiction novels for children are set within the same time period as Caroline Lawrence's THE CASE OF THE DEADLY DESPERADOS, but none in recent memory have taken the same path Lawrence has to tell her story. This book was a blast!

THE CASE OF THE DEADLY DESPERADOS begins with P.K. Pinkerton, our twelve-year old hero, hiding out in the bottom of a cave. His foster ma and pa have been scalped and murdered by none other than Whittlin' Walt and his 'pards. And worse yet, now they're after P.K. because he has in his possession a document that would make its bearer incredibly rich. Gunfights, clever disguises, Soiled Doves, and saloons ensue.

If this book was eligible for the Newbery, I would be championing it pretty hard this winter. But sadly, Caroline Lawrence does not reside in the US and apparently this novel was published in the UK before its rights were purchased and published here, early this 2012. Either way, I am making it my mission to insert this title into as many conversations as I possibly can.

Random Acquaintance #1: Hey Mr. H! Did you catch Clint Eastwood on the Republican National Convention the other night?

Mr. H: No I didn't. Have you read THE CASE OF THE DEADLY DESPERADOS by Caroline Lawrence though?

Random Acquaintance #2: Hey Mr. H! How did your fantasy football draft go?

Mr. H: Not bad. Have you read THE CASE OF THE DEADLY DESPERADOS by Caroline Lawrence?

Random Acquaintance #3: Hey Mr. H! How are the kiddos? 

Mr. H: The fam is doing well. Thanks for asking. By the way, have you read THE CASE OF THE DEADLY DESPERADOS by Caroline Lawrence?

Seriously. I cannot say enough about how much I enjoyed this book. I am a father of two children now. My daughter is two and a half years old and my son is six months. My life consists of going to school, coming home to entertain them and make supper, wash dishes and pick up the house, put the kids to bed, and then maybe, just maybe, take a little bit of time to catch up on school work and lesson plans. Plus, I've started graduate school this year and am earning my masters in Educational Leadership. Suffice it to say, I don't have a lot of time to read for fun.

Taking part in the discussions on Heavy Medal during Newbery season is something I love to do. I can't possible read even half of the books people will be discussing in depth on that blog this year, but if I focus my efforts, I can tackle the big ones. Wasting time reading books that are ineligible, or not worthy of discussion, will frustrate me because I could have spent that time reading a favorite of bloggers over there. Even knowing that THE CASE OF THE DEADLY DESPERADOS is ineligible, doesn't bother me. Not in the least! I should be upset but I don't care. That's how much I liked this book!

I loved P.K.'s voice. It's reminiscent of THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME. I'm sure Asperger's syndrome is not something that was being diagnosed back in the Wild West. Which makes the intricacies of P.K.'s narrative so rich. It's obvious P.K. is autistic, but a name cannot be placed on it because it doesn't exist. P.K. refers to his difficulties showing and feeling emotion as his "thorn". He struggles socially because he has no emotional response to situations. His foster ma and pa were scalped right in front of him and he was as sober as could be!

Which makes Lawrence's twist ending, that much more clever. A twist ending you say? Sometimes knowing a twist ending is coming, ruins a reading experience. Not that case with this book. I promise you, there are two surprises in this book you will never see coming. I didn't anyway. And I can't remember the last time a book caught me the way this one did.

It's crude and it's violent. It's thrilling and surprising. It's the book I've enjoyed most this year. I can't wait to see where Lawrence takes P.K.

Final Grade: A

The False Prince

THE FALSE PRINCE by Jennifer A. Nielsen was the first book I noticed this year, with any type of Newbery buzz. Newbery buzz, as children's literature fans are sure to know, can be a double edged sword. Peak too early, and you may find yourself doomed (OKAY FOR NOW). Swoop in at the last minute, and sometimes you're in better shape (MOON OVER MANIFEST). Suffice it to say, we're now in September and the current buzz surrounding this book, is almost non-existent.

Jonathan Hunt listed THE FALSE PRINCE on his 2013 Newbery Reading List back in January already, the same time I was able to get a paperback copy in my hands through a Scholastic Book Order. Oddly enough, Amazon doesn't list the publication date until April, but since I was hearing things back in January I felt lucky to get my hands in on the action early! Which I rarely ever get to.

THE FALSE PRINCE tells the story of Sage, an orphan thief who finds himself recruited ('kidnapped' might be a better word) along with three other orphan boys, by a powerful man named Conner. Conner plans to pit the boys against each other in hopes of disguising one of them as the long-lost (and believed to be dead), young prince of a discontent nation. With certain death awaiting those Conner doesn't find worthy, each boy is determined to win his approval. As Conner's true motive begins to reveal itself, an even bigger secret surfaces that alters everything!

A strange sense of deja-vu came over me while reading this book. About halfway through I felt as if I had read this book before. Then it hit me . . . I had! Back when it was called THE THIEF by Megan Whalen Turner. Once I realized this, reading this novel became an interesting experience. Because I began to see everything differently. In fact, I began to realize that Nielsen was more than likely going to end her novel exactly as Whalen Turner had, by pulling the rug out from under readers. I even guessed how . . . just like Megan Whalen Turner! By using an unreliable narrator.

Novels with unreliable narrators are a tricky thing. When done well, they can blow readers away. When done not-so-well, they can leave readers frustrated, confused, and angry. Books like this almost seem to invite criticism. To me, it's different if the narrator has amnesia or is suffering from denial or something like that. But when the narrator is a perfectly healthy individual who is purposely hiding something from the reader, only to reveal it at the very end when the story reaches its climax, I tend to feel as if the author was merely out to "trick" their readers. Personally, I feel like that is the case with this story.

I admit, Whalen Turner's novel could be very guilty of this as well, but she went on to write an extremely complex series of novels, each one exceeding the previous in terms of brilliance. So it's easier to forgive her for tricking her readers. Nielsen has planned a trilogy with this cast of characters so it may be unfair to judge her yet. But right now, I can't think of any other way to describe this novel than to say it's THE THIEF's younger, easier-to-read cousin.

It's not a bad book. The psychological intrigue was interesting. I liked the suspenseful way the kidnapped boys began to compete against each other, yet, befriend each other and rely on each other in the same way. In the end though, I just felt sorry for the other boys because I was able to see through the main character's secret early on and they weren't able to see that they were competing in an unfair competition.

I suppose, if a younger reader has not encountered THE THIEF, and enjoys middle-aged suspense and mystery, this would be a good read. However, if that child reader is smart, and loved the taut storytelling on display in THE THIEF, I'm afraid they are going to put this one down because it just doesn't stand up when compared.

Maybe comparing it isn't fair. But THE THIEF was just that good. I couldn't help it.

Final Grade: B

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The One and Only Ivan

What is it about children's books and animal cruelty? Have you ever noticed how many children's books have been written about dying animals? When I was in grade school, I hated books about animals. WHERE THE RED FERN GROWS, CHARLOTTE'S WEB . . . I never understood why kids would want to read sad books about animals. Maybe it was because we were never animal people in my family. Pets were messy, a lot of work, and we were a sensitive bunch and I think deep down, just never wanted to get to know something so cute and cuddly that was going to die long before us.

I bring this up because I should have known what was coming in THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN. I should have seen the sad looking animals on the front cover and stayed far away. I should have read the blurb on the jacket by none other than Kathi Appelt, author of THE UNDERNEATH for crying out loud, and put this book back on the shelf. But I had to give it a try . . . there's just something about distinguished literature for children and sad animals . . .

Ivan is a mighty gorilla, trapped in a small circus (that doubles as a shopping mall) with an aging elephant, a stray dog, and a new baby elephant. Ivan is quite the artist and people pay $25 for his artwork (which is usually just of a banana). When Ruby, a baby elephant joins the troupe and begins asking questions about their existence, Ivan finds himself promising her a better life, unaware of how he can provide one for her. Sad, sad animals ensue . . .

As I mentioned earlier, the back of this novel boasts a quote from Kathi Appelt, author of the brilliant THE UNDERNEATH, and I find it rather fitting because of all the children's novels I've read in recent years, the one that screams comparison the most, is THE UNDERNEATH. Everything in THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN is so darn sad. Depressingly sad. When the details of Ivan's background are brought to light, I found myself needing to put the book down and take a break, just as I did with Appelt's novel at times.

Ivan narrates this book in a sort of verse-prose that is both simple and compelling at the same time. It's quite the feat by author Katherine Applegate. Ivan is an artist at heart and there's only so much art he can make inside the walls of his domain. The fact that he's an artist made it easier to stomach some of the beautiful language coming out of the mouth of this gorilla. But at times, I couldn't suspend my disbelief to the extreme because the figurative language was pretty for the sake of being pretty, and not something a gorilla, even this gorilla, would ever come up with. The wordiness of the verse took away from the poignancy of the story at times for me, oddly enough. Quite often, this style of writing is supposed to bring out the poignancy of stories.

If Applegate's novel were to come away with some Newbery hardware this winter, I can't say that I would be too surprised. However I can't believe that there isn't better written, more distinguished novels, out there for kids this year. THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN is a very good book, don't get me wrong. It's a very meaningful book, but it's a sappy sort of book that oozes Newbery . . . sad animals, dying animals, friendship and art, uplifting message (albeit, with an over the top, happy, somewhat cliched ending) . . . Maybe this is why I found myself not rooting for it in the end. Because it wouldn't surprise me if everyone else is.

Final Grade: B

Summer Hiatus?

I always have such big plans for the summer. Last year, I wanted to read 10 books. I read 2. This year, I wised up and set no such goal. Heck, if I read 2 books this summer I'll be thrilled. Well, I've done a little better than that in preparing for Newbery season and Heavy Medal discussions.

I try to choose books carefully. Of course, I want to read the Newbery frontrunners, but I also want to read books for me . . . books that I know will not be contenders but I enjoy, and books that could be dark horse contenders and need someone to champion them. I think I may have already found one of those . . .

I read my good pal Patrick Jennings' latest, INVASION OF THE DOGNAPPERS as the school year came to a close, as well as Jennifer Nielsen's THE FALSE PRINCE. I'll post official "reviews" soon, but I'll wet the appetite a bit by saying I liked one, and don't know what to think about the other.

Then I went on to read THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN by Katherine Applegate. I am currently reading THE CASE OF THE DEADLY DESPERADOS by Caroline Lawrence and Sara Pennypacker's SUMMER OF THE GYPSY MOTHS is sitting on the nightstand waiting to be opened.

Books I want to read because they WILL be talked about this winter:
- WONDER
- THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN
- LIAR & SPY
- SPLENDORS & GLOOM
- SUMMER OF THE GYPSY MOTHS
- THREE TIMES LUCKY

Books I want to read that will probably not be in contention for ALA awards, but I want to read them anyways:
- THE INCORRIGIBLE CHILDREN OF ASHTON PLACE: THE UNSEEN GUEST
- INVASION OF THE DOGNAPPERS

Books I want to read that are not frontrunners, but look like my thing and may need a voice:
- THE CASE OF THE DEADLY DESPERADOS
- IN A GLASS GRIMMLY
- JAKE AND LILLY
- WHAT CAME FROM THE STARS
- THE MIGHTY MISS MALONE
- IRON HEARTED VIOLET
- THE HUMMING ROOM