Jammer Dreams

51mvuixhjelRoller Girl, by Victoria Jamieson (2015)

Opening line: “If you really want to know, it began back in fifth grade. Back when Nicole and I were still best friends.”

Okay, so I’m seeing a startling similarity between this one and my last post, despite the fact that I didn’t pick up on it during the actual reading of the book. Perhaps there are just some themes that are important enough to middle school that they need LOTS of books about them. Like drifting friendships.

Many of us had that childhood best friend. We loved the same things, hated the same things, and did everything together. But with age, new people, and new experiences, that friendship can change. As it did with Astrid and Nicole. The girls attend a roller derby game one night with Astrid’s mom and Astrid falls in love with the intensity, the speed, and the crazy outfits. She assumes Nicole will sign up for the derby summer camp with her, and is surprised to learn Nicole has signed up for dance camp instead. With the worst girl in the world.

But Astrid is determined to become a derby girl. Unfortunately, the first day of derby camp shows that skating is NOT Astrid’s natural instinct. She’s pretty awful at it. Despite that, Astrid refuses to give up.

Great for fans of Raina Telgemeier’s and the only middle grade book I know about an increasingly popular sport!

2 stars.


Doing the time

Locked Up: A History of the U.S. Prison System, by Laura B. Edge (2009)

Opening line: “In September 1773, twenty-one-year old Levi Ames of Boston, Massachusetts, confessed to being a member of a gang of robbers.”

I am on the constant lookout for engaging, extended informational texts. Not only does the curriculum require it for Common Core, but to get my kids to read full-length non-fiction, it’s gotta be really good. If I was to continue my “opening line” with the rest of this first page of Edge’s history book, you would quickly find the major reason why I don’t think this one would hold up.

After the first paragraph, the short description of Levi Ames end by gallows, Edge jumps to a description of crime. And then back to the 1600s. And so she goes throughout her story. Although the basic structure of her text is chronological, Edge rather skips and hops between ideas and lacks the transitions necessary to tie these together. This can be really problematic when you are trying to convince middle schoolers to read the entire thing.

Perhaps a rare student could use this for some sort of research project. It appears to be good information and well-researched, with a full 22 pages of end matter. It’s an interesting and relevant topic — especially to those 1.5 million children who have at least one parent in prison, as Edge suggests. I can picture this topic as a thoughtful subject for project-based learning. But for pleasure reading? Not so much. I also wish there was a bit more treatment of the state of modern prisons.

Informative, but rather chaotic. 1.5 stars.

Can I get a cover redesign, please?

Ashes of Roses, by Mary Jane Auch (2002)

This book is in serious need of a booktalk. I mean, look at it. That cover is atrocious. I feel like her porcelain eyes are burning into my soul. What middle schooler is going to pick up this book? NOT A ONE. Which is unfortunate, because I think they might really like it.

Margaret “Rose” Nolan is sixteen and is aboard a ship with her entire family, coming to America. When her baby brother is designated as having a troubling eye condition at Ellis Island, for which they deny entry into the country, the family must split up, sending Da Nolan (Da, being the Irish version of “Dad”) and Baby Nolan back to the home country, while the four Nolan women carry on. Soon, however, Ma Nolan can’t take the separation from her husband and baby and carts the girls back to the shipyard. But Rose knows what awaits her back in Ireland: an early loveless marriage and instant motherhood. And this is not a life she wants.

So as the family is preparing to climb back aboard a ship headed for home, Rose puts her foot down and insists on staying in America on her own. Soon, her 12-year-old sister Maureen insists, too, and in desperation, their mother agrees to leave them. But as soon as their mother and youngest sister leave the harbor, Rose and Maureen are stuck with a troubling question: Now what? The rest of the story follows the two sisters as they make their way on their own in bustling New York City in 1911. And for those of you who know your NYC history, you won’t be surprised to learn that the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire plays a harrowing role in the climax of this exciting coming-of-age novel.

Luckily, I get to booktalk this book during my upcoming middle school student teaching placement for a group of eighth graders who get extra credit for reading anything related to American history, so it may just be saved from an early death by non-circulation. At least in one library.

A little slow, until the last 50 pages that is: 1.5 stars

Andrew’s chapter titles are WAY better than my post titles. Proof.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, by Jesse Andrews (2012)

I don’t know what it is about my spring reading habits, but so far this season I’ve read two YA novels that are simultaneously about a girl dying of cancer and laugh-out-loud funny (Mr. Green’s The Fault in Our Stars being the first one, of course).

Greg Gaines is entering his senior year of high school, otherwise known as his fourth year of attempting to be invisible in the eyes of the student body. His low-key friendliness and self-deprecating humor have allowed him to ease through the school hallways without attracting much attention. Instead of joining any clubs or teams, he directs and stars in super-secret remakes of his favorite films with his short, angry partner-in-crime, Earl. Things are running smoothly, until, of course, Greg’s mom forces him to hang out with a girl from school who is dying. And how does an awkward teenage boy react to that situation? Needless to say, not well.

Greg narrates this tale of his downward-spiraling senior year interspersed with lists, script dialogue (there’s a word for that in film-lingo, isn’t there? Clearly I’m a film dunce), asides to the reader, and lots of bad language (which I find particularly amusing).

Here’s what made this book so great: It felt more real than anything I’ve read in a long time. I mean, I loved TFiOS as much as the next book blogger, but… it had the magical fiction glow. You know. The perfect lines, the honorable intentions, the nice bow ending. Me and Earl, on the other hand, didn’t…. glow, per se. In fact, in many places Greg acknowledges what would have happened in the “fictional” version of this story and points out that those things did not happen in this story. Instead, Greg says the stupid things. He has opinions and reactions that are far from honorable. And the ending lacks a bow. It’s fresh, invigorating, and WILL make you laugh.

Also, every page that includes Earl is a good one. Thank goodness he’s on many of them.

2.5 stars, mostly for Earl. Favorite debut so far.

The Times They Are A Changin’

Time Snatchers, by Richard Ungar (2012)

I came across this debut randomly on the library shelf, and although I’d heard nothing about it, I took it for the sole reason that the back flap said the author was inspired by one of Chris Van Allsburg’s images from The Mysterious Harris Burdick, and as you already know (from my review of Chronicles of Harris Burdick), that’s a good enough reason for me.

Flash forward about 50 years to 2061 where we meet Caleb, a Time Snatcher. Orphaned at a young age, Caleb was “adopted” by a man called only Uncle, along with a handful of other kids. The children were trained to take advantage of new technology Uncle has developed that allows them to travel through time to steal famous artifacts for high-paying clients. For many years, Uncle’s group of orphans felt like a family to Caleb, but things are starting to change. America and China have entered into a partnership, and with it, Uncle sees new ways to increase business. In fact, his plans are so big, he feels the need to expand his group of Snatchers from a handful to hundreds. And to do that, the Snatchers will need to snatch more kids, even kids that have families. Throw in a big bully, the flutterings of first love, and some hefty decisions between right and wrong, and you have a coming-of-age story that will resound with many a middle-schooler of the current decade.

1.5 stars

(PS: Anybody else notice how the cover HIGHLY resembles one of the covers of Ender’s Game? Coincidence, I think not.)

Trying too hard in Mississippi

Glory Be, by Augusta Scattergood (2012)

I somehow read two middle grade books about Southern race relations right in a row, which may be why this one won’t get as good of a review.

It’s the summer of 1964, and Glory is anxiously awaiting awaiting her 12th birthday, which she plans to spend as she does every year: at a pool party with her family and friends. But this summer is different from summers past, because there are some new folks in town who are making certain people very nervous. The Freedom Fighters, as the new folks are called, are making a stand for racial equality and integration, and those who disagree with their views become defensive. Before Glory fully realizes what is happening, the town council has closed the pool in an effort to keep it from becoming integrated. And the changes keep going from there.

I have to tell you, this book didn’t do it for me. There were some good parts, but mostly, I felt like it was just trying too hard. Glory is too earnest, writing a powerful letter to the editor of the town paper about her disgust about racial segregation, when really her motivation seems almost entirely directed toward getting the pool reopened for her birthday party. Sometimes Scattergood writes her characters’ dialogue with elements of Southern speech, sometimes she doesn’t. Glory’s father is almost non-existent except for when he all of a sudden stands up for her in a moment of heartfelt pride. Glory’s friendship woes don’t seemreal. None of it did, to be honest.

Which is why I was surprised when I read the author’s note at the end, in which she explains that large parts of  the novel she pulled from her own personal history growing up in Mississippi. I’m wondering if this was the book’s downfall. Maybe  Scattergood had these memorable experiences of her childhood that she felt would make a good story and she just tried too hard to get all the parts to fit, rather than allowing the story (and its characters) to become its own.

One perk: since Scattergood herself is a former children’s librarian, the public library plays a pivotal role in the novel and the librarian is the only one who truly sticks to her guns in terms of what is right. Obviously, I’m a fan of this.

Fine, but not fully convincing: 1 star

Children’s fiction surprising me with American history, once again.

Crow, by Barbara Wright (2012)

It’s hard to know where to start with this book. Initially, as I was reading, I was coming up with a list of complaints I had that I would share with you in this post, but by the end… most of them seemed kind of petty. The last 90 pages of Crow are extremely powerful, and I’m feeling a little overwhelmed as I write this. So to have a chance to organize my thoughts, let’s start this off with a summary, shall we?

It’s 1898 in Wilmington, North Carolina. Moses Thomas is a smart 11-year old boy living with his mother, Sadie, who is a housemaid in the home of a rich white family (a la The Help), his father, Jackson, newspaper man at the only black daily in the state and one of 10 town aldermen, and his grandmother, Boo Nanney, a former slave who freely shares her wisdom and folk remedies with all who care to listen. Moses’ father is a big proponent of education, giving Moses “challenge words” to research in the dictionary (great language arts tie-in!) and assuring him that with hard work and commitment, Moses can achieve anything.

But as elections for the state and federal government approach, things start to heat up in Wilmington. In the years since the Civil War, Wilmington, the largest city in North Carolina, had become a black-majority community with a rising middle class and a biracial local government (as represented by fictional Jackson Thomas). The state had even elected four black Congressmen to represent them in Washington (incidentally, another African American from North Carolina was not elected to U.S. Congress again until 1992). Because of this, Moses is seemingly unaware of the kind of racism possible, until a group of White Supremacists known as the Red Shirts arrive in town to keep blacks from voting. For days, Moses and his family and friends are kept in their homes for fear of leaving. Following the election, the fear and violence escalate, and even though the Red Shirts were successful at securing an all-white representation for the state and nation, they now demand an all-white local government as well (despite the municipal elections being slated for the following year). What unfolds is bloody chaos as the Red Shirts take over and the black families struggle for safety.

According to Wright’s historical note at the end of her book and the little research I did after finishing reading, the events depicted in Crow are pretty accurate to what happened in Wilmington on the day that is now called “The Wilmington Insurrection of 1898.” Although Moses and his family are fictional, most everything else is a result of careful research. Once again (like with Fever 1793) I found myself incredibly surprised by this event in our country’s history that I had heard nothing of before, an event that was pretty crucial to the shaping of race relations in the south for most of the 20th Century. Had this coup d’etat never happened, things may have progressed in North Carolina (and the rest of the south) in the way it seemed to be shaping–with more African Americans in leadership and government positions, with a growing middle class, and with Jim Crow laws being forgotten. But instead we had a century of oppression for those who weren’t white and equality still hasn’t been fully realized.

Moses’s naive view of the world made this book a great one for those just learning about race relations in the south, I’m thinking especially for communities that are fairly homogenous and may not know racism as well as others. With Moses, the reader’s eyes are slowly opened to the injustices that have accompanied having darker skin in America.

I loved the characters Wright gradually developed, particularly Boo Nanney, Moses’s father, and Tommy, a white kid Moses befriends. This is where Wright shines.

But it’s certainly not a perfect book, so finally, back to my complaints (although they are somewhat minor in retrospect): For the first 150 pages of this book, there is no plot. It kind of reminds me of Watsons Go to Birmingham, 1963, in this way, with the many chapters of plateau to a sudden climax and conclusion. But at least with Watsons, each chapter has a story of its own. In Crow, the chapters seemed to be marked somewhat haphazardly. Hit 25 pages, and we’ll throw in a new chapter heading. And they draaaaggg on. I think it would take a persistent kid to commit to this book. That being said, I think it would work great as a book read with a class, either as part of a small group reading circle or as a full class. One thing to watch out for: the n-word is used pretty heavily in the second half of the book and the violence is pretty graphic. Keep an eye out for anxious parents. And when they do come, explain to them the incredibly valuable contributions this book has to make.

2 stars

(PS: This marks my second debut for the Debut Challenge! Note: Wright is not a brand new author, but her first two books Easy Money and Plain Language are for adult audiences.)