Monthly Archives: September 2013

Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures, by Kate DiCamillo

ImageFlora Belle Buckman’s mother wrote romance novels for a living. Flora did not believe in romance; she was a confirmed cynic. Her mantra was, “Do not hope; instead, observe,” a piece of advice she picked up from one of her favorite comics, Terrible Things Can Happen to You. Since her parents’ separation, Flora had preferred to live in a comic book world, where superheroes could fight off any villain and make the world alright again. Her mother did not approve of this at all, but then, Flora did not approve of her mother’s smug shepherdess lamp, either. One day, when Flora was upstairs reading The Illuminated Adventures of the Amazing Incandesto!, her next-door neighbor’s new Ulysses 2000X vacuum cleaner ran amok and vacuumed up a squirrel. When the poor creature plopped out of the machine, minus a good deal of fur, he had been transformed into a superhero! Holy Bagumba!

Flora is sure that she and the squirrel are destined to have great adventures, and since her mother wants to get rid of Ulysses (named after the vacuum), she is revealed as his arch-nemesis. The neighbor, Tootie, and her loquacious great-nephew, William Spiver, become devoted Ulysses fans, particularly when Ulysses writes such lovely poetry on Mrs. Buckman’s typewriter. Ulysses accompanies Flora on her weekend visit with her dad, during which the squirrel hero runs into some trouble in a donut shop when he has to fly through the air in order to escape from a waitress with a Marie Antoinette hair-do. Unfortunately, his flight ends suddenly on a glass door. Cradling the bleeding squirrel, Flora asks for help from her dad’s neighbor, Dr. Meescham, who turns out to be a psychiatrist, not a medical doctor. However, she cares very much that they are all well-adjusted, and she feeds Flora and Ulysses jelly sandwiches, regaling them with stories of her childhood in Blundermeecen while they slide off her horsehair sofa. Everyone in this story is looking for love, a search that involves tromps through the woods, battles with evil cats, temporary blindness, hateful shepherdesses, and, most importantly, avoidance of sacks and shovels.

How is it that most of us put these squiggly black lines down on paper and they say things like “milk, eggs, toilet paper,” while Kate DiCamillo puts squiggly black lines on her paper (or screen) and they break your heart open? This book is a humorous children’s story, but it is written with such delicacy and poignancy that it takes on layers of meaning. Every character is quirky, but most are so endearing and vulnerable that we have to hope, and not just observe. The children are both precocious and use the sort of formal, vocabulary-test language that could become cute in a lesser writer’s hands, but neither their dialogue nor their sorrow ever turn into what Flora would disparagingly call “treacle.” Flora and William Spiver (never just William, and certainly not Billy) just need to know that their parents love them unconditionally.

The absence of parents, whether physically or emotionally, is a major theme in children’s literature, and I’m finding it in our award contenders this year more than ever. It’s always been around, as we can see from all of the stepmother stories through the ages, but the increasing number of children whose parents have divorced—whether they are living with stepparents or not—has perhaps made it more difficult for children to feel secure and cherished. Flora and William have both found ways to cope, to toughen their little hearts and deal with the world, but they are still children and therefore fragile.

At this point in my reading, Flora & Ulysses is my Newbery front-runner, and it will be very difficult to topple it from its peak. Admittedly, I am a DiCamillo fan, and The Tale of Despereaux was my favorite the year it won the Newbery, but she is truly a tremendously gifted writer. I was misty-eyed through much of the book, but there is one passage that concerns sardines on crackers that I had to immediately reread, put the book down, and sob. You’ll get it when you read it. I also wept at the end of the book. Furthermore—and not unimportantly— she even works in a scolding on the misuse of apostrophes, a rant that is always dear to my heart. So, just hand me that lovely gold medal and I’ll slap it on right now. I love this book.

Can I recommend it more highly? For children from 9 to 90.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Fortunately, the Milk, by Neil Gaiman

ImageMum is leaving town to give a lecture on lizards, and Dad is in charge of the two kids. Dad’s talents include newspaper reading and tea drinking, but, unfortunately, he uses up all of the milk. In the morning, the kids have no milk for their Toastios, so Dad goes down to the corner shop to buy some. He is gone a very long time, but when he finally returns, what a story he has to tell!

It seems that he walked out of the store, milk in hand, only to be sucked up into a spaceship with green, globby aliens who insist that he sign over the rights to the Earth so that they can redecorate it. He refuses, like a proper Earthling, and heads toward a door with a “Do Not Open” sign. One of the aliens warns him that if he does, he will “let the space-time continuum in.” He opens it anyway, and as a result, he is whisked into a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy– inspired adventure in a time machine balloon, meeting pirates and dinosaurs, cannibals and sparkly ponies. Fortunately, the milk was always at hand, even playing a key role in freeing him from his enemies. In the end, not only does he provide milk for his children, but he also saves us all from inhabiting a planet covered with pink plastic flamingoes and decorative plates.

This delightful little book is too long for a bedtime story, but too short for actual chapters. Every page is filled with Skottie Young’s hilarious, scribbly pen-and-ink drawings, which convey the tone of the text perfectly. Cannibals could really scare a young child, but these cannibals are ridiculous with just an edge of menace. Readers will pore over the brilliant details.

Neil Gaiman is a prolific author and has won the Newbery Medal in the past for his middle-grade novel, The Graveyard Book. The Newbery Committee does not allow pictures to be considered when deciding on the eligibility of the work, but even on its own, the text tells a terrific story. Considered against other offerings, however, it is probably too slight to win the medal this year. That is not to say that your family will not enjoy it immensely! Imaginative kiddos from five to twelve will giggle and roll their eyes right up to the teasing conclusion. Adults, too, will enjoy this tale of a dad who will go through harrowing trials just to bring his children breakfast.

Highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Zombie Baseball Beatdown, by Paolo Bacigalupi

ImageRabi is not much of a baseball player, but it’s even harder to concentrate on the ball when his mom’s marigold-yellow sari is dancing around in the bleachers. When his teammate, Sammy, starts to call him “red dot” after he strikes out, a fight seems inevitable, but Coach Cocoran blames Rabi, and eventually he leaves with his friends Miguel and Joe. However, when the boys arrive at Miguel’s house, they discover that his parents have been deported by ICE. Miguel is sure that it’s because they tried to blow the whistle on the illegal and unsafe practices going on at the local meat-packing plant, where Sammy’s father runs the show.

Thought this was just a fun zombie novel, eh? Somehow, Bacigalupi skillfully manages to layer a rollicking, slapstick middle-grade novel with serious issues, such as illegal immigration, corporate malfeasance, mad cow disease, racism, and the frightening and shameful state of food processing in the U.S. As a bonus, there are zombies, both human and bovine. The boys deal with very adult issues on their own, but the dialogue remains true to middle school. Although the author highlights the vulnerability of children without adults to protect them, our heroes show amazing resourcefulness while being just as goofy as boys that age usually are. No sex, romance, or foul language, but a pretty high yuck factor.

Truth to tell, I am not sure whether the target audience will understand or appreciate the heavier issues. I kept thinking of it as Fast Food Nation for kids, with zombies added in. The illegal immigration problem was illustrated entirely from the immigrant side, which is certainly a valid and important viewpoint, but there was no nuance at all. Notwithstanding all of these reservations, there is no doubt that middle grade readers will revel in the fast-paced zombie chase scenes and mooing, severed zombie cow heads. For 10 and up.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.


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Far Far Away, by Tom McNeal

ImageJeremy Johnson Johnson lives a difficult life for a teenager, belying his town’s name, Never Better. Circumstances could be much better for Jeremy and his dad, who has not left the house since Jeremy’s mother disappeared. His grandfather bequeathed Jeremy his bookstore, where he and his dad live, but his father took out a huge loan on the store, and of course, he can’t pay it back. Jeremy works hard at odd jobs to bring in grocery money while studying diligently so that he can go to university on a scholarship. At least he has the respect and affection of all of his neighbors in his little town.

Along comes the fetching Ginger Boltinghouse with her friends, who convince Jeremy to participate in a harmless prank that goes terribly wrong. Now everyone in town is against him, and he and his dad are about to lose their home. Jeremy is so smitten with the mischievous Ginger that he makes several bad choices, even though his ghost keeps warning him against her. Oh, didn’t I mention that he had a ghost? Not just any specter, but the ghost of Jacob Grimm, one of the famous brothers who wrote all of those dark fairy tales. Jacob is stuck here in the Zwischenraum, the in-between space, until he can do his good deed, which is to protect Jeremy from the Finder of Occasions, a person who will use any event to visit evil upon his unsuspecting victims.

So skillfully has Mr. McNeal written this novel that the reader travels right along with this sad but hopeful tale as if it were realistic fiction, in spite of the ghost whispering in Jeremy’s ear. Looking back, I can see the foreshadowing and red herrings, but when the plot took a shocking twist, I was completely caught off guard. The last 150 pages of the book are terrifying, and I could not put it down. All I will say is that this is a Grimm tale, after all.

Far Far Away is written for a younger audience than our previous award-list entries. The protagonist is fifteen, but 10-year-olds who don’t scare easily should do fine with it. The style and language put it in the Newbery category, but since the main characters are teens, it could also vie for the Printz. Literary excellence, check. Great plot, check. Character development, check. Tom McNeal is also an adult author, and has written several teen books with his wife, Laura McNeal, a National Book Award winner. Definitely one to watch. Recommended.

Disclaimer:  I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.


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The Sin-Eater’s Confession, by Ilsa J. Bick

ImageBen is writing his confession from Afghanistan, where he is about to volunteer for a dangerous mission. He realizes that he may never return, but even if he does, he knows that he must tell this tragic, shameful story that’s been eating him alive for two years.

When Jimmy’s older brother, Del, died in a car accident, Ben stepped up to help on the Lange’s dairy farm. Del had been a popular football player, and Ben was shocked to see how openly Mr. Lange favored him and despised skinny, artistic Jimmy. Ben began to treat Jimmy as if he were a younger brother, and Jimmy confided his dream of becoming a professional photographer, a dream his father would not even allow him to discuss.

One day, when Jimmy and Ben were working in the barn, Mr. Lange and his pastor came tearing up the drive, and Mr. Lange began beating Jimmy, shouting and holding a rolled-up magazine. When Jimmy ran to the house, Mr. Lange turned on Ben and told him never to return and to keep away from his son. It was not until Ben reached home that he saw that Jimmy had placed second in a prestigious photography contest, and that Jimmy’s sensuous photo of a shirtless, sleeping Ben was in a national magazine.

Overnight, Ben’s carefully planned, Yale-bound life began to unravel. Rumors ran rampant through the school and community, and Ben expressed his anger to Jimmy publicly. A few days later, Ben witnessed a horrific tragedy, but rather than exposing it, he ran away. Afterward, he quickly became enmeshed in a web of lies and deceit that threatened to destroy him.

Ilsa Bick has fashioned a tragic tale that leaves not only the protagonist, but also the reader wondering how to disentangle all of the false information without punishing the innocent. She shows that, although we may not be guilty of the charges against us, most of us are very aware of other sins for which we are truly guilty. Clearing our consciences without hurting others is a tricky business, and even though Ben has mostly good intentions, he makes some very bad decisions.

This was a very effective novel, with a couple of cautions for the sensitive reader. Ms. Bick has no use for Christians—or religious people of any kind—and she paints all of the Christians in the book as if they were members of the Westboro Baptist Church. It was highly offensive. Furthermore, all the scenes that could be gruesome were extremely so, with vivid descriptions of blood and gore. I am not a squeamish person, but I did find that I had to skim over those parts. Other than those two issues, The Sin-Eater’s Confession is an absolute page-turner with a very likeable, realistically flawed main character. The ending was not neatly resolved, which I found appropriate. Definitely worth your time and sure to generate lots of discussion.

Disclaimer:  I read a library copy of this book. My opinions are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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All Our Pretty Songs, by Sarah McCarry

ImageTwo girls without fathers grow up as if they were sisters, even though their mothers are now estranged. Aurora is beautiful and popular, while the unnamed narrator is strong and mean, a typical punk rocker. Their love seems to be unbreakable until the night they hear Jack play his guitar. His music is almost magical, drawing his audience into his spell, leaving rooms full of people silent and rapt. The narrator falls deeply in love, and for the first time in her life, she is tortured by the fear that a man will choose Aurora’s beauty over her. At the same time, Aurora is following in her mother’s footsteps by spiraling downward into serious drug use, clinging to a hideous older man who provides her with the dangerous substances she believes will help her to find her dead father in some other realm.  The narrator is desperate to save her.

McCarry’s debut novel is lyrically written, her gorgeous words drawing pictures on the page. At times, it was difficult to know whether certain scenes were drug trips or magical realism, since she slid from descriptions of ordinary parties in apartment buildings to bacchanalia in mystical forests and back again. The narrator’s emotions are forceful, and for the most part, worthy, but her task is to learn to love other people enough to let go, even if that means being completely alone.

This book is supposed to be the first part of a trilogy, but it stands on its own perfectly well — although the ending is somewhat ambiguous. The frequency and descriptions of drug use are overwhelming, even sickening, at times. There are two body types: thin and emaciated. The darkness of the dreams and the evil characters are truly frightening. As far as Printz-worthiness is concerned, the writing is certainly excellent, but the story itself was sometimes confusing and perhaps not as fleshed-out as some of the other contenders. Ms. McCarry is definitely a writer to watch, although I think I’ll wait for something not quite so agonizing next time.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. My opinions are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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7 Men, by Eric Metaxas

ImageFor the sake of full disclosure, I have to admit that when I heard about 7 Men: And the Secret of Their Greatness, my first reaction was, “What, not one woman?” However, since I am an Eric Metaxas fan, I did ask the adult selector to buy it for the library system and immediately requested it for myself. As soon as I read the thoughtful and impassioned introduction, I realized that Metaxas had a reason for writing about men only and these seven men in particular.

Metaxas believes that we live in an age in which we love to shred our heroes. As a reader and selector of children’s books, I couldn’t agree more. Even children’s biographies these days tend to concentrate on the weaknesses of famous people, gleefully drawing attention to their sins, because everybody loves a public hanging. Metaxas aims to bring us back to finding out what it is about these heroes that is admirable, and in doing so, to find out how men can fulfill their God-given role to use their strength and power in order to protect the ones they love. His goal in each of these short biographies is to illustrate the sacrifice of each man, to point out the critical choice that each of them made when they could have taken the easier, more comfortable road, but made the turn to sacrifice—and therefore, greatness—instead.

Two of the men discussed in this book have been given fuller treatment in Metaxas’ biographies of William Wilberforce and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but this distillation was a great refresher. Most of us may be surprised at what we didn’t find out in school about George Washington, and Chariots of Fire only tells part of the story about Eric Liddell.  Even though I’d heard of Jackie Robinson, sports figures are always a blur to me, so his story was fascinating, and although I was a Catholic at the time that John Paul II became pope, I did not know the full story of his inspiring life. Chuck Colson was such a controversial person, and even though I have read several of his books, I was so young during the Watergate scandal that I’d never been clear on his role in that episode in our history. Metaxas’ chapters on all of these men will bring the reader greater understanding, but they all point to the crucial question: Would their lives have been different if they had made the easier choice, and if so, why didn’t they?

Although this book is interesting and inspiring to all readers, it would be particularly valuable for young men. As C.S. Lewis once said, “We laugh at honour, and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.”* Nourishing the minds of young men on the stories of great heroes may cause them to consider their own lives more carefully and to use their strength to serve others in need, be it their wives and children, the church, or their country. Growing such heroes would be a blessing to us all.

Amy Carmichael and Abigail Adams next time?


*C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.


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