Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Ten Miles Past Normal

Ten Miles Past Normal
By Frances O'Roark Dowell
Atheneum Books for Young Readers, c2011. 211 pgs. Teen fiction

Janie lives on a mini farm with her parents, something she used to be excited about, but when she hit high school and had some embarrassing moments with hay in hair and goat poop on her shoes, the farm became a cause of embarrassment. She's just trying to blend in and not be noticed anymore, but when she starts learning how to play base guitar from a guy named Monster and getting to know a former civil rights worker, she realizes maybe she doesn't want to hide after all.

I didn't really feel like there was anything that really made this book stand out. It's good and fans of realistic teen fiction will like it, but it didn't do anything to really leave a lasting impression on me.

3 stars. Clean Read.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Boy Who Dared

The Boy Who Dared: A Novel Based on the True Story of a Hitler Youth
By Susan Campbell Baroletti
Scholastic Press, 2008. 202 pgs. Middle Grade/Teen fiction

In Nazi Germany, some people recognized Nazi propaganda and violence for what it was--a violation of civil rights and a bunch of lies to cover the truth. Helmuth Hubener, a teenager, was one of those people. Troubled by the Nazis and their beliefs and adhering to his own beliefs (he was a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-days Saints) he only reluctantly participated in the Hitler Youth (a requirement for all German youth), and, after listening to illegal BBC broadcasts about the war, began writing and distributing anti-Nazi pamphlets. Caught, he was sentenced to death but was at peace with his decision to tell the truth.

Based on the true story of Helmuth Hubener (whose last name actually wasn't Hubener for much of his life), this book is an intriguing look at how those who didn't support the Nazis might struggle with their own conscience--on the one hand, they wanted to protect themselves and their families, but on the other, how could they stand by as the Nazi madness spread? This is an inspiring story, and while occasionally, the writing felt a little simplistic to me, the message is powerful.
(As a very small side quibble...I think it's weird to call the book " A Novel based on the True Story of a Hitler Youth." Um, German youth were required to be Hitler Youth, which means the vast majority of them were Hitler Youth...and I think there's a big difference between Helmuth and those who actually enjoyed being in the Hitler Youth. Bartoletti portrays him as not being that involved in the Hitler Youth; he wasn't some horrible bully who saw the error of his ways and then changed. In this story, he's never one of those kids who thrives on being a part of the Hitler Youth, or who sees that as a huge part of his identity. So, to me, that little addition doesn't quite fit. Perhaps a publisher's attempt at being dramatic? I don't know...but I don't think it's accurate in what it conveys.)

3 stars.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Out of My Mind

Out of My Mind
By Sharon M. Draper
Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2010. 295 pgs. Middle grade fiction

Ten-year-old Melody is fascinated with words. She has a remarkable memory, is highly intelligent, and no one knows it, because Melody also has cerebral palsy and can't speak and has very limited physical capacity. However, she longs for a voice of her own, a way to share her thoughts and feelings with others and to be a "normal" kid. When Melody gets a special computer that allows her to type and speaks her words, suddenly, the world opens up for her...but not always as much as she'd like.

Overall, I really liked this one. It's a great story about a girl with a disability who wants to be seen as more than her disability. There are some heartbreaking moments as other children are unkind, but also some great moments as Melody realizes how strong she is. At the same time, there were some parts of the book where the writing had me rolling my eyes a little; for example, "...there's no one like me. It's like I live in a cage with no door and no key. And I have no way to tell someone how to get me out. Oh, wait! I forgot about Mrs. V!" Um...first, if there's no door, why would you need a key? Second, really, really, she forgot all about Mrs. V. (a very integral part of the story). Why not just say something like, "Well, except maybe Mrs. V.," or something like that? Still, it's a book worth reading. Great for kids with special needs, and also for kids who are insensitive to others, and even for adults who sometimes just don't get it.

3.5 stars.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Moon over Manifest

Moon over Manifest
By Clare Vanderpool
Delacorte Press, 2010. 351 pgs. Middle grade fiction.

Twelve-year-old Abilene's father, a drifter, sends her to live in Manifest with an old friend. Abilene, who just wants to be with her father, spends her time in Manifest trying to find some sort of connection to her father. At the same time, she stumbles across a mystery: she finds a cigar box with some mementos and letters from WWI-era that make her wonder just what was going on in Manifest back then. She and her friends start looking for a spy, and the town fortune teller starts telling Abilene pieces of the story.

An excellent piece of historical fiction. I really liked Abilene and what we learn about the town and the people. It's a great look into life during WWI and also during the 1930s, when Abilene is in town. My biggest gripe with the book is probably that I listened to the audio version and didn't care for some of the voices.

4.5 stars. Clean Read.

Thursday, May 26, 2011


By Maurice Gleitzman
Henry Holt, 2010.198 pgs. Middle Grade Fiction

Ten-year-old Felix, a Jew, and six-year-old Zelda, the daughter of now-dece have escaped from a train heading to a death camp, but as they try to find a place to hide, one of the first things they encounter is a pit with a bunch of slaughtered Jewish children. Frightened and orphaned, the two agree that they'll be a new family and always stay together. They find shelter with a Polish woman, Genia, but Felix knows that simply by being Jewish, he puts Genia and Zelda in danger, and he tries to figure out what is best for his new family.

In the sequel to Once, Felix has become somewhat less naive, but still holds a child-like innocence that makes him a heart-breakingly real narrator. This is a beautifully written story about young people trying to hide during WWII, and if it doesn't choke you up a little bit, you probably don't have a heart.

5 stars.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Turtle in Paradise

Turtle in Paradise
By Jennifer L. Holm
andom House/Listening Library, 2010. 3.5 hours. Middle Grade Fiction

Turtle is sent to live with aunt and cousins in Key West after her mother gets a job as a housekeeper for a lady who doesn't like children. Turtle, who is sassy and has a shell built around her, finds that she has a lot to learn about Conchs (the Key West residents) and about letting go of her shell a little bit.

I really enjoyed this book. Holm's develops Key West during the Depression in a way that is completely accessible for readers, throws in characters who will have readers laughing out loud, and does it all with language with transports readers to a whole other place. I'd love to read more about Turtle and her Diaper Gang friends, so I'm really hoping this one turns out to be the first in a series.

4.5 stars.

What Happened to Goodbye

What Happened to Goodbye
By Sarah Dessen
Viking Childrens Books, 2011. 402 pgs. Teen Fiction

Since her parents' divorce, Mclean Sweet has followed her father around on his job as a restaurant consultant. That means she's lived in four towns in two years--and in each place, she has created a new identify for herself, complete with a new name (she's been Beth, Eliza, and Lizbet) and new hobbies and interests, molding her personality into whatever works best for her current location. She doesn't get attached, and she doesn't say goodbye. However, in the fourth town, before she has a chance to role out her new persona (Liz), she's forced back into being Mclean--except she doesn't really know what that means anymore. As she's trying to deal with her family troubles--she's basically avoided her mother ever since the divorce--and making new friends, she has to figure out how to be herself again.

I always enjoy Sarah Dessen's books and this one is no exception (although I will say it's not my favorite of hers). There's a little bit of romance (although some readers might wish there was a little more, since it doesn't garner many pages of coverage), and a lot of realistically-developed family and identity issues. Dessen is great at portraying deep characters and getting inside the head of teen girls. I thought the ending wrapped up a little too quickly, but overall, another teen book with some substance to recommend to teens and adults alike.

On a side note, one thing that REALLY irritated me about this book is the basketball angle--Mclean and her father used to be big into basketball, but then her mother ran off with their favorite college team's coach and now they hate the support. Still, it was supposed to have been a big part of their lives...and yet, Mclean repeatedly refers to the "basketball goal". Um, it's a HOOP. That's why it's called shooting hoops, not shooting goals. I don't know, maybe it's a regional thing?? But honestly, I've been around basketball my whole life, and no one I know calls it a goal. So for me, it just made the book not ring quite so true. Granted, that's a little detail, but it irked me...and I wonder now how much little details can detract from a book. Does something so small have so much power on the reader's experience?

Anyway, 4 stars, and a pretty clean read. There's some mention of underage drinking and maybe there's some swearing but I don't even remember for sure (which means if it's there, it's pretty mild).

Monday, May 16, 2011

Please Ignore Vera Dietz

Please Ignore Vera Dietz
By A.S. King
Alfred A. Knopf, 2010. 326 pgs. Teen fiction

Vera Dietz's best friend Charlie has died, which is bad. But before he died, he betrayed her, which is worse. And now his ghosts (yes, plural) are haunting her, which might be worst of all. Vera knows more about Charlie's death than she has admitted to anyone, and while she doesn't want to deal with Charlie in any form, his ghosts are pushing her to find out what he needed to tell her before he died and to clear his name.

This book opens after Charlie's death but flashbacks help readers see the development of Vera and Charlie's friendship, as well as the deterioration of their friendship. Vera, who has always tried to stay out of the spotlight, to be invisible, has to decide who she's going to be without her best friend--and what she's going to do about his death, while at the same time dealing with the fact that Charlie comes from an abusive family and her own mother left her and her dad when she was twelve.

This book is jam-packed with issues and problems, which in some cases might overwhelm a book, but in this case, they really worked together to have realistic, round characters. The book was gripping, and as more pieces came to light about Charlie, Vera, and their past, I kept wanting more and more. This is not a book for the faint-hearted, and thematic material might make it more suitable for older teens, but it's well-written and powerful.

3 stars.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Okay for Now

Okay for Now
By Gary D. Schmidt
Clarion Books, 2011. 360 pgs. Middle Grade/Teen fiction

Doug Sweiteck is a diamond in the rough. His father, who is loud, obnoxious, and even abusive, has quit his job and is moving them to Marysville, a podunk town far from Doug's beloved Yankees. His oldest brother, who is about as kind as their father, is fighting in Vietnam and his other older brother looks like he's well on the way to being a hoodlum, and there's no lost love between Doug and his brothers. Doug is anticipating a pretty miserable eighth grade year in Marysville, but some things turn out to be surprisingly good. Take for instance, Mr. Powell, the librarian who is teaching Doug to draw using volume of Audubon's Birds of America. And Lil Spencer, whose father owns the local, gets him a job as a delivery boy for her father, and she herself turns out to be quite the friend to Doug. And school, which has plenty of downs, turns out to have some ups as well.

This book is a companion novel to The Wednesday Wars; it's a complete stand-alone, and in my opinion, even better than The Wednesday Wars. I liked The Wednesday Wars just fine, but I love this one. It wrapped itself around my heart, and readers who aren't touched by some part of Doug's story likely aren't human.

The first person narration is fabulous--Doug has a distinct voice that is wise and strikes the perfect balance between humorous and serious. The situations Doug faces also range from serious (some are truly heart-wrenching) to hilarious (although the hilarity is often shown in smaller doses). Watching him evolve from a borderline hoodlum himself to a kid who can do anything is a truly beautiful experience, made all the better by fantastic storytelling.

Supporting characters enhance the story. Some, like Lil, Mr. Powell and Doug's science teacher are the sorts you wish you could get to know, while others, like Principle Peattie and Coach Reed, will have readers wishing, along with Doug, that someone would punch them in the face. Their villainy might be a little over the top, but it fits with Doug's voice.

Although this book is historical fiction (and would be a great story to help people understand more about the Vietnam war), even readers who don't like historical fiction will be able to relate to and enjoy it--many of the issues are ones facing kids and teens today.

It has been said there are four doorways to reading--characters, setting, plot, and language--and this book has all four, making it a great choice for just about anyone. Even reluctant readers will enjoy getting to know Doug (who is a reluctant reader himself).

This is a book about art and learning from it, about life and dealing with it, and about family and loving them. It's about getting knocked down and getting back up again, about hurting and healing, and about becoming the master of one's own destiny.

There are some books that just make your soul feel different after you read them, and for me, this is one of those books. I read it on a day when I personally needed to know that things would be okay for now, and I find myself cheered by it and grateful to Gary Schmidt for it. I hope it wins the Newbery next year. 5 stars.