A new fairy tale to tell

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The Girl Who Drank the Moon, by Kelly Barnhill (2016)

Opening line: “Yes. There is a witch in the woods.”

I realize I’m a little late to the reviewing game on this one, seeing that big shiny gold medal in the corner of the cover, but I can’t help but talk about it. And there may still be a few readers out there like me who haven’t picked it up yet! That shiny gold medal can be a divisive one for readers… some will automatically gravitate toward award winners, because they know they have been thoroughly vetted by a group of knowledgeable people. Others, though, will particularly avoid Newbery medalists (in particular), because they have had a bit of a reputation in the past for not choosing readable books for kids. They might be literary gems, but aren’t engaging for the relevant audience of (typically) middle grade readers. That seems to have changed in the past several years though, with the likes of The CrossoverLast Stop on Market Streetand of course, One and Only Ivan (which I can literally give to any student and know it will be a positive experience). I’m not sure where this year’s winner will fall in that spectrum, but I’m sure going to try to make it be one of those that kids will devour too.

This one reads like a delicious fairy tale, one that has dark and twisty edges like “Hansel and Gretel” or “Rumpelstiltskin”, rather than “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, for instance. In the village known as the Protectorate, villagers know that every year on the Day of Sacrifice, the youngest baby in the Protectorate will be taken out into the woods to be left for the witch. Because of this annual tragedy, a cloud of sorrow hangs over the village, although the parents of the sacrificed baby have always willingly complied. Until this year, that is. This year, the youngest baby’s mother is driven mad with grief, and is locked in a tower in the center of the Protectorate to live out her days. Her baby is taken to the clearing in the woods and left for dead. Here’s the really grim part: the leaders of the Protectorate know the witch story is just made up. They know the baby is likely just eaten by wild animals or dies of starvation or thirst. The Day of Sacrifice is a tool of manipulation, one meant to keep the people in line.  Yikes.

HOWEVER! There IS a witch in the woods! And she DOES come to get the babies each year! Of course, this witch is a good witch who has no idea why these infants are being left in the woods. She’s practical though, and when she sees a problem (particularly one like an innocent babe being left to fend for itself in the woods), she’s apt to solve it. So every year, she embarks on a journey through the deep and dangerous forest to retrieve the child and take it across the world to the Free Cities where she finds a loving adoptive family to raise it. On the journey, she typically feeds the baby starlight, giving them a little magical glow that stays with them for the rest of their lives. But this year, this baby, she accidentally feeds her with moonlight. And it turns out moonlight gives you more than a magical glow. It gives you MAGIC. Babies aren’t supposed to be enmagicked because they can’t control it, so the witch decides to adopt the baby herself to look after her. Add in a sweet swamp monster and a tiny dragon who thinks he’s huge, and we’ve got the beginnings of a fantastic fairytale.

The layers to this tale are complex and suspenseful, and the narrator’s language made me want to read this aloud. (I did. I did read it aloud. To my dog.) I think this would be a great classroom novel that could also be used in short chunks to discuss mood, tone, or word choice. I don’t think that every middle grade reader is going to love this one if tackling it on their own (like Crossover or Ivan), but maybe that’s another reason why it’s special. It has a special reader in mind.

2.5 stars

 

 

A writing style analysis of a steampunk series opener: Monsters, robots, and POV, oh my!

 

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The League of Seven, by Alan Gratz (2014)

Opening Line: “The secret entrance to the headquarters of the Septemberist Society could only be reached by submarine.”

I love a story in which the opening line leaves me with SO MANY questions. (What is the Septemberist Society? Why is it called the Septemberist Society? Why can you only reach it by submarine? Why is it secret? Who’s in the Septemberist Society? Is it a real thing? Where is the headquarters located? I could go on.)

In anticipation of Alan Gratz’s author visit to our school in October, I’ve been attempting to read through all the books of his we own in our library. His black/white/red covered books (see: Prisoner B-3087, Projekt 1065and Code of Honor) are wildly popular with our students, and while I can definitely understand why that is the case, they weren’t doing the same for me. I liked them fine, but I didn’t love them. It was starting to make me feel anxious. As a librarian, I want to be able to earnestly and honestly and exuberantly push these books on my students prior to his visit. I was trying to piece together what the issue was until I opened up League of Seven, and was immediately gripped by the story. Phew.

Our main character is 12-year-old Archie Dent, son to researchers for the Septemberists, a secret society aimed at keeping the world safe from the Mangleborn, massive world-destroying monsters. Several times throughout the history of humankind, the Mangleborn have risen up and destroyed civilizations, and it is only through a League of Seven heroes that they are quelled and trapped beneath the earth once again. It’s been many generations since the Mangleborn have awoken, but according to research by Archie’s parents, there are rumblings of a rebirth. This becomes very clear when they arrive at the Septemberist headquarters and council has been infiltrated and taken over by strange bug-like creatures buried in the backs of the council-members necks. Soon Archie learns that Thomas Alva Edison, evil genius, is attempting to use lektricity to awaken the Swarm Queen, a Mangleborn locked under the swamps of Florida, and he is using Archie’s parents to help him. Archie is thrown together with two other young people, Fergus — whose impressive mechanical knowledge makes him desirable to Edison — and Hachi — a First Nations girl who has great skills in weaponry and a vengeful death wish for Edison — and together, they must figure out a way to stop Edison and the Swarm Queen from killing Archie’s parents and destroying the world. No biggie.

Okay, so there are some definite differences between League of Seven, and the black/white/red books (subsequently referred to as BWR books). First of all: genreLeague of Seven is an alternative steampunk historical fiction novel (as opposed to realistic historical fiction). We’ve got some some robots, some ancient legends, some real-life characters making a very different impact on society (hello there, villainous Thomas Edison), all set in a much different picture of 1870s America.

Secondly, tense. I’ve noticed his other books (that I’ve read so far) are written in present tense. This gives the narrative an urgent, action-driven focus. For some reason, this tense style feels more juvenile for me. Again, I see value in it for the intended audience, but for me, it’s not my preference. League is written in past tense.

Next, point of viewLeague is written primarily in the third-person limited perspective (with Archie being the limited scope), although we do see a more omniscient perspective occasionally. This is my FAVORITE pov to read. I think it gives the author flexibility while still allowing the reader to feel personally connected to the protagonist. I think it also lends authenticity to the text. The BWR books are written in first person, which again, tends to be the more comfortable choice for my students. However, authors who write for middle grade audiences are still ADULTS (primarily), and when they write in a tween voice, even the best authors are impostors.

Now maybe my English major analyzer is in overdrive here and these aspects are just correlation not causation. I feel like I’ll certainly be more aware of these things in the future. Let’s just say I’m super pumped to be able to promote this series to my students this fall in anticipation of Alan’s visit. I’ll still booktalk all his books, but the BWRs basically promote themselves. League is a little more off the beaten path, but I think will be a HUGE hit with those insatiable fans of our dear friend Rick Riordan.

2.5 stars. Next two books in the series are already out!

 

 

Fostering a father

41uzrunxtklOrbiting Jupiter, by Gary D. Schmidt (2015)

Opening line: “‘Before you agree to have Joseph come live with you,’ Mrs. Stroud said, ‘there are one or two things you ought to understand.'”

The one or two things Jack and his parents “ought to know” about Joseph are these: Two months ago, Joseph almost killed a teacher in a bathroom, and a month before that, Joseph became a father. The last thing? Joseph’s fourteen.

I feel like right there, you know this story is going to be a heartbreaker. As someone who works with 14-year-olds on a daily basis, I cannot physically imagine any of them being fathers or mothers, despite the fact that I know it happens. As someone twice that age, I am just beginning to imagine myself in that role. 14-year-olds are supposed to be worried about basketball practice and pop quizzes and obnoxious siblings, not about caring for an infant.

However, within these first few pages of a potentially heartbreaking story, we also see a glimmer of hope. Because despite these concerning facts about Joseph, Jack and his parents are completely on board with welcoming him into their family, and do so with gusto. Jack, age 12, takes it upon himself to be there for his new foster brother, sitting by him on the bus (against the advice of his friends), walking with him to and from school when the bus isn’t an option for Joseph (despite his principal’s warnings), and having his back in fights (even though he’s two years younger). Although he doesn’t yet know the full story of Joseph’s life (Joseph is pretty clammed up about it), Jack somehow recognizes that there’s got to be more to it, and more to Joseph than what initially meets the eye. Through the patience and kindness of Jack and his parents, Joseph begins to open up. When he does, Jack learns that the thing Joseph wants most in the world is to meet his baby daughter, Jupiter. It’s the only thing he cares about, the only thing he’s focused on. And he’s willing to risk everything to do it.

Not only did this story hook me right from the very beginning with it’s plot, but Gary Schmidt’s storytelling completely absorbed me. I loved hearing the story from Jack’s perspective, a somewhat objective viewpoint, although still deeply involved. I loved the sparse, purposeful dialogue that let the story be revealed to us, rather than the abundant “he said/she saids” that are so frequently sprinkled throughout middle grade lit. I even loved the winter setting, feeling the thick snow drifts up to my knees and burning sensation of your ears and nose when you come in from being outside (and for those of you who know my disposition to warmer climates, you understand how impressive that is).

I have to tell you, I was blown away by this book. I read it almost all in one sitting (I think I was about 15 pages in when I picked it up yesterday morning), and it gripped me the entire time. I JUST WANT EVERYONE TO KNOW ABOUT IT. If you are familiar with the foster system, you should read this. If you are someone who works with teens and preteens, you should read this. If you are a teen or preteen, who knows that life really is more complicated despite what adults believe or want to believe, you should read this. Just, read this.

3 stars

A connection deeper than most

The Girls, by Lori Lansens (2005)

I have never looked into my sister’s eyes. I have never bathed alone. I have never stood in the grass at night and raised my arms to a beguiling moon. I’ve never used an airplane bathroom. Or worn a hat. Or been kissed like that. I’ve never driven a car. Or slept through the night. Never a private talk. Or solo walk. I’ve never climbed a tree. Or faded into a crowd. So many things I’ve never done, but oh, how I’ve been loved.

And so begins the fictional autobiography of Rose and Ruby Darlen, the oldest living pair of conjoined craniopagus twins. For those of you who don’t obsessively watch late night TLC or haven’t flipped the pages of your medical dictionary in a while, that means they were born joined at the head. Two bodies, two brains, two very different personalities, but one fused skull. At age 29, Rose decides to start writing her autobiography, which her sister Ruby says isn’t fair, since Rose’s life story is essentially Ruby’s as well. Thus, the girls alternate chapters, a technique that paints a delightfully interesting picture of the differences in life experience despite their closeness.

The sisters have very different writing styles (an authorial skill I so deeply admire and is reminiscent of The Poisonwood Bible), with Rose often writing her portions as a storyteller, including historical background, emotional connections, and layered parallels, and Ruby writing as she would speak, telling her day-to-day accounts and responding to much of what she assumes Rose is writing. Both include much about their adoptive parents, Aunt Lovey and Uncle Stash, with whom although they share no blood ties, shared a deep affection.

Never self-pitying and continually surprising, this fresh story of two girls in a life that most of us have never even considered won my heart almost immediately.

2.5 stars