Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Dreamer by Pam Munoz Ryan, Drawings by Peter Sis

dreamerI don’t know how I missed this book when it first came out, but when I saw it on Horn Book’s list of Best of 2010, I grabbed it.  Pablo Neruda is one of my favorite poets, so it was fascinating to read this fictionalized account of his childhood.  It’s amazing that so dreamy and introspective a child could withstand the relentless bullying of his father and grow up to be one of the most sensitive poets the world has ever known.




I scarcely knew, by myself, that I existed,

that I’d be able to be, and go on being.

I was afraid of that, of life itself.

I didn’t want to be seen,

I didn’t want my existence to be known.

I became pallid, thin, and absentminded.

I didn’t want to speak so that nobody

would recognize my voice.  I didn’t want

to see so that nobody would see me.

Walking, I pressed myself against the wall

like a shadow slipping away.

Neftali Reyes grew up in the small town of Temuco, Chile.  His father was an important man who completely dominated his family.  Neftali was weak and sickly, and always collecting things –oddly shaped stones, twigs, and even words he liked the sound of, which he wrote on scraps of paper and kept in a drawer.  Neftali’s older brother Rodolfo wanted to be a singer, but their father considered any occupation other than businessman or doctor to be a waste of time.  He forbid Rodolfo to sing, and even though Rodolfo wasn’t able to stand up for himself, he did try to help Neftali pursue his interests and avoid their father’s wrath.  His stepmother and younger sister Laurita provided some much-needed love and affection in Neftali’s life. When his father discovered something Neftali had written and published in the university newspaper, he threw all of the notebooks containing Neftali’s life writings out his bedroom window and then set them on fire. Neftali knew that if he were going to keep writing, he would have to write under another name so his father wouldn’t find out.  So he became Pablo Neruda.  Ryan’s The Dreamer shows how Neftali’s wonder at the natural world, and his reverence for the beauty of the land and creatures of Chile sustain him through a bleak childhood, and save him from despair.  Review by Stacy Church

Winner of the 2011 Pura Belpré Author Award

Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Secret Life of Ms. Finkleman by Ben H. Winters

finklemanIt all started with the special project in Mr. Melville’s class.  Everyone liked his special projects –they were always so totally random.  The latest special assignment is to find a mystery (any mystery) and solve it.  Bethesda Fielding knows right away that the mystery she wants to solve is Ms. Finkleman, the music teacher.  Well, not Ms. Finkleman exactly –the mystery of who Ms. Finkleman is outside of Mary Todd Lincoln Middle School.  When Bethesda starts asking questions, she finds out that mousy, non-descript Ms. Finkleman is more mysterious than ever.  No one knows anything about her.  That’s why Bethesda decides she has to snoop in Ms. Finkleman’s desk.  She doesn’t find anything helpful, but there is a scrap of paper with some sort of code on it, so Bethesda takes it home.  As she ponders the possible meaning, something about it seems familiar.  She figures out that the initials stand for titles of songs on an old record of her dad’s, a record of a punk band called Little Miss Mystery and the Red Herrings.  Ms. Finkleman must be Miss Mystery!  Poor Ms. Finkleman, who has always thought of herself as an agouti (a small shy nervous creature, living in habitats with larger creatures who are always trying to eat them), is about to be outed.  This is a hilarious book, with a lot of funny side stories, including the principal’s bets with a rival school’s principal, which always end up with her having to wear something ridiculous like a giant foam sombrero that reads, “Go Grover Cleveland.”  When the principal gets wind that her music teacher is really a rock star, she decides this is her one chance to win a competition against Grover Cleveland –the upcoming Choral Corral.  She blackmails Ms. Finkleman into putting on a rock concert instead of her planned program of traditional English folk ballads, and mayhem ensues.  This book is so well written that I couldn’t stop reading until I finished it!  Review by Stacy Church

Sugar and Ice by Kate Messner

sugar and iceI really enjoyed this new book by the author of another book I liked, The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z. Snow and Ice tells the story of 7th grader Claire Boucher, who spends her time skating on the frozen pond, teaching skating to younger children and helping her family on their maple farm.  Claire loves skating more than anything, and when a talent scout sees her stellar performance in the annual Maple Show, she’s offered a full scholarship to the summer program at Lake Placid, under the tutelage of an intense Russian skating coach.  She hates competing –the only time she tried, she missed her performance because she was in the bathroom being sick –and she doesn’t think there’s any way her family can manage getting her there, but when her parents find out about the offer, they’re determined to make it happen for her.  What an intense world she finds herself dropped into!  Her own coach has always been encouraging, even when Claire makes mistakes, and she’s never been subjected to mean girls who are willing to sabotage their “friends” so they can shine brighter.  Claire also didn’t realize how much she would have to give up in order to participate in the program, including her beloved coaching job, and (almost) her friendship with her best friend, Natalie, who she never has time for anymore.  This book is a great glimpse into the choices talented kids have to make, whether they’re skaters, soccer players, or musicians. Review by Stacy Church

The Grimm Legacy by Polly Shulman

grimmWhat a fantastic idea for a book!  Wouldn’t it be great if you could go to a library and check out Snow White’s stepmother’s magic mirror or the Pied Piper’s pipes?  Elizabeth has no idea what she’s getting herself into when she accepts a job at the New-York Circulating Material Repository, but she can really use something good in her life.  In the opening scene of the book, Elizabeth gives her gym shoes to a homeless woman outside of her school.  Now, I don’t know about you, but this is sort of a fairy tale, and it seems to me that good things happen to people in fairy tales who give away their belongings to help someone less fortunate.  So when the homeless woman gives her what looks like an ordinary number 2 pencil, I was kind of wondering if there would be more to it than that. Soon after starting work at her new job, Elizabeth starts to hear about a special collection called the Grimm Collection, but no one seems to want to talk about it.  And no wonder.  It turns out that everything isn’t on the up and up in the Grimm Collection (which you’ve probably guessed contains magical objects from the Grimm brothers’ fairy tales), and some of Elizabeth’s new friends are part of the problem.  Eventually Elizabeth finds herself in the middle of a complicated situation involving objects that aren’t as magical as they’re supposed to be, and some that have just plain disappeared.  When her coworker Anjali is kidnapped, it’s up to Elizabeth and the other pages to find her and set her free from a magic spell.  There are trips on a magic carpet, tea parties with magically refilling dishes, attacks by a giant menacing bird, and rescues by an equally giant dog.  Review by Stacy Church

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Dear Anjali by Melissa Glenn Haber

anjaliThis is the story of 12-year-old Meredith, whose best friend Anjali died suddenly from encephalitis. At Anjali’s funeral, Meredith is really irritated that people keep talking about what Anjali could have done with her life if she hadn’t died so young, when what they really should be doing is appreciating Anjali for who she was, but of course when she tries to put this into words, it just comes out sounding lame. The story is told in the form of letters that Meredith writes to Anjali, one every day, mostly written on her dad’s old typewriter, because “I really have to bludgeon my fingers to pound out the letters and that seems right because it DOES hurt and it SHOULD hurt to have to write the words…”  Meredith has a funny way of writing, even when she’s sad, and it really seems like she’s talking to her best friend. I like the way Meredith makes phrases she uses into trademarked sayings by typing TM after them: Normal Human Being TM, Expert-EaseTM, Katie “I am a Princess of PerfectionTM” Beals (speaking of her sister).  When invited to go to the movies with her crush, Noah Spivak, and her worst enemy, Wendy Mathinson, Meredith writes, “that’s when I told him I had more intriguing plans like being ripped to shreds by dobermans while having rusty spikes nailed into my head.” I was so happy that Meredith hated Wendy as much at the end of the book as she did at the beginning; she was still just as mean as ever. The story takes an interesting turn when Meredith finds out that Anjali wasn’t honest with her about her feelings for Noah Spivak, who Meredith has had a crush on since 5th grade.  Anjali always told her Noah was out of her league, and then confessed that she liked him, too, but she never told Meredith that she and Noah actually went to a party together (and at Wendy Mathinson’s house, no less!) and even kissed.  Meredith has to somehow reconcile this info with her own growing relationship with Noah.   Review by Stacy Church