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!

 

 

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The three rancheros

91ayjzgyg0lRaymie Nightingale, by Kate DiCamillo (2016)

Opening line: “There were three of them, three girls.”

There were once three of us, three girls. We didn’t come together quite like Raymie and her three rancheros came together, but were pushed together more due to having the same teacher and liking to play make-believe games on the playground. Raymie Clarke, Louisiana Elefante, and Beverly Tapinski come together at in a slightly more unique situation, at the home of their baton twirling coach at their first baton twirling lesson. The lesson fails to proceed, however, after Louisiana faints at the thought of performing, and their coach declines to put up with “this nonsense.”

Raymie is learning to twirl in order to win the Little Miss Central Florida Tire competition. She has a plan. Three days ago, Raymie’s father ran off with a dental hygienist and Raymie is convinced that if she wins the competition, her father will see her picture in the paper and have to come home. Everything rests with her winning the competition. She soon finds out that Louisiana, who dons lucky bunny barrettes in her hair and flashy sequined dresses, wants to win the Little Miss Central Florida Tire competition also, but she is more interested in the $1975 prize money in order to buy food for her and her granny and perhaps turn the electricity back on at home. Beverly, a scrappy girl with a chip on her shoulder and a bruise on her face, is just entering in order to sabotage the competition, for no reason in particular.

This is the story of the magic that can turn three strangers into best friends over the matter of a few days, at an age where empathy and compassion seem as natural as breathing. As Louisiana tells Raymie, “no matter what, you’re here and I’m here and we’re here together.” And often, that is enough to get through just about anything.

Delightfully honest and touching, 2.5 stars

Lauren and Cheesy: a Love Story

51qxunmoamlThe Bridge from Me to You, by Lisa Schroeder (2014)

Opening line: “The house smells like / apple pie thanks to the / burning candle on the mantel.”

Lauren is new to the small town of Willow. She’s recently moved in with her aunt, uncle, and three young cousins, leaving a mom and baby brother back in Portland, for reasons she’s keeping close to her chest, reasons that make her sad, anxious, and a little bit angry. Colby is Willow’s golden boy, star football player about to start his senior season accompanied by his best friend in the world, Benny. Colby’s got a secret too; despite being really good at football, and despite his father’s dreams for him to get a football scholarship, Colby feels done with football. He wants to go to college to learn to build bridges, not score touchdowns. Both Lauren and Colby are feeling trapped.

When they meet at the local Jiffy Mart over a bag of Bugles, they seem to offer each other a breath of fresh air. Colby might be Lauren’s bridge out, and Lauren might be Colby’s. Things are suddenly looking up for them both. Until Benny’s accident, that is. One night, Colby’s best friend Benny is in a motorcycle accident, landing him in a coma, and Colby in the hospital waiting room, not knowing if Benny will ever recover.

I feel like I could just keep going with plot summary, because there’s no real good place to stop. Just picture the most recent sappy Nicholas Sparks movie, and you’ve probably got a good idea. I couldn’t hardly believe that one of the main characters is Colby, because this book was cheeeeesy. I think it’ll be one that my students will easily devour though, because there’s not much more you want as a thirteen year old than a perfect romance to cure all your problems. Which is basically how this one goes. The writing is equally as cheesy as the plot, probably not helped by the fact that all of Lauren’s chapters are written in verse, which the author took advantage of in a terrible sort of way. I usually love verse novels, but found this one trying way too hard.

Eh, not great literature here, folks. But not a terrible way to spend an afternoon.

1 star

 

 

Snow Day = Graphics Day

We had a snow day Friday, which is much different in South Carolina than it was in Illinois. First off, they called it at about 6pm the night before (unheard of), and we didn’t get snow until late Friday night, although the freezing rain and sleet all day did make the unsalted roads fairly treacherous. I’m not complaining, to be clear. Plus, I had been forewarned by my new coworkers to expect it, so I took home a whole stack of new graphic novels we got in this past week, and put my snow day to good use!

51vjlju6ullDrowned City: Hurricane Katrina & New Orleans, by Don Brown (2015)

Opening line: “An unremarkable wind leaves Africa and breezes toward the Americas.”

Don Brown, gaining a reputation for his graphic non-fiction for young people following The Great American Dust Bowlpresents a graphic representation of the most horrific natural disaster our country has seen so far this century: Hurricane Katrina. His artwork is haunting, and he will give students new to this topic a lot of surprising and jarring details about this disaster. I wanted to love this one, but found myself having trouble connecting one panel to the next, and also found some of his details confusing or strangely placed. I wished for a more cohesive narrative. And although written for a slightly older audience, I loved A.D.: New Orleans after the Deluge much more.  1.5 stars

51p2bmkuorjlLost in NYC: A Subway Adventure, text by Nadja Spiegelman, illustrated by Sergio Garcia Sanchez (2015)

Pablo is new to NYC, and although he is used to new places (as his family moves a lot), he’s not at all used to the NYC subway system. He quickly becomes separated from his class on their field trip to visit the Empire State Building, and has to navigate the crazy colors and numbers to get himself to the right place. A very quick read, but the drawings are full of rich and fun details that could easily let you spend a long time on each page. 2 stars

51fryuowq-lThe Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: Volume 1, by Ryan North and Erica Henderson (2015)

Opening line: “Squirrel Girl, Squirrel Girl! She’s a human and also a squirrel!”  (sung to tune of the SpiderMan theme song)

I don’t read a lot of superhero comics, but Squirrel Girl is one I can get behind. Doreen (aka Squirrel Girl) is starting college at Empire State University, simultaneously trying to blend in as a regular college student (although stuffing her enormous tail into her pants gives her a hiney rivaling Kim K’s), and jumpstart her career as an awesome superhero. As part squirrel, Doreen can climb and leap with the best of them, but her real power lies in her ability to communicate with and instruct squirrels to do her bidding, besting even the strongest of villains. Plus, she and her sidekick Tippy Toe are generally hilarious. I’m a big fan. 2 stars

41vjt-xeoalTrickster: Native American tales, A Graphic Collection, ed. by Matt Dembicki (2010)

This is a compilation of more than 20 Native American trickster tales, adapted into graphic novel format. Each story is collected from a different Native American storyteller or author, and is illustrated by a different artist. I have to say, with the vast variety of stories and artists, some I liked better than others. A couple of my favorites included the brightly-colored “Mai and the Cliff Dwelling Birds” and the dark and haunting “Coyote and the Pebbles.” There were others, however, that I did not enjoy, like “When Coyote Decided to Get Married” (in which everyone was turned to stone because Coyote was pissed that one of the maidens he sent for was tarnished goods) and “Paupaulenalena” (which combined a hard-to-read font, creepy pictures, and a super bizarre story). I don’t know. I guess I feel good that we have it in my library, but it was not my favorite of the pack, to be sure. (1 star)

 

Hello friend

51iiw2fcopl Goodbye Stranger, by Rebecca Stead (2015)

Opening line: “When she was eight years old, Bridget Barsamian woke up in a hospital, where a doctor told her she shouldn’t be alive.”

Bridge has two best friends, Em and Tab, and the three have been besties forever, partially because of their rule to never fight. But seventh grade has a lot of changes, including the policy that each student must join a club. However, the three musketeers have different interests, leading them to different clubs. Different clubs means different people, different people means less time for each other. And that might mean they might have to break their no-fighting rule.

One of the new people Bridge meets in her stage crew club is Sherm. Every few chapters we get a letter from Sherm written to his grandfather, a grandfather who used to be there, but no longer is, and the reader is really not sure why. And it’s not until we know more of Sherm’s backstory before the letters start making any sense.

And then we have a third narrator, a story of a teenage girl on Valentine’s Day, who, for some reason, is avoiding school. Or at least certain people at school.

These multiple perspectives weave in and out of each other, but without telling us directly how. On its own, Bridge’s story would have been a nice friendship/school middle grade novel. I probably would have enjoyed it. But it’s the multiple story lines that brings this novel up to the next level. The mystery and the various points-of-view (third person, second person, letter) the other two story lines provide bring this from a good novel to a great one. I loved it.

2.5 stars

Go ahead, judge this one by it’s cover.

Lost in the Sun, by Lisa Graff (2015)

Opening line: “When we were real little kids, Mom used to take Aaron and Doug and me to Sal’s Pizzeria for dinner almost every Tuesday, which is when they had their Family Night Special.”

First of all. How gorgeous is this cover? I’m in love with the colors and design. Nice work Andrew Bannecker.

Second of all. The story. Lovely. Heartbreaking. Uplifting. All the good things go into this story. Trent is starting 6th grade, which is hard enough for any kid. But six months ago Trent joined a pick up game of hockey, hit a puck into another kid’s chest (a kid who evidently had a heart condition), and that kid died. While a complete accident, Trent has not been able to forgive himself, and he’s pretty sure no one else has forgiven him either. His former friends are shunning him, his new teachers hate him, and worst of all, his father thinks he’s a waste of space (or so it seems to Trent). It doesn’t help that anytime he picks up a baseball or a basketball or any other piece of sporting equipment, his hands get clammy and he can’t breathe.

Then he meets Fallon Little, the girl with the horrible scar across her face, one that came either from a frisbee hitting her in the noggin, or a lightning bolt striking her, or being attacked by a soulless beast while scuba diving. Depends on which story she’s telling that day. Fallon is unlike anyone Trent has met before, and as much as he tries to dislike her strangeness, he can’t help but notice they way she laughs with her whole body and the way her smile tucks into the edge of her scar. And as much as Fallon jokes away her scar with extravagant storytelling, something happened there, something she doesn’t like to talk about.

This story is packed with wonderful characters and honest emotions, a nearly perfect middle grade novel.

2 stars

Interestingly, it’s a companion novel to Umbrella Summer, which is from the point of view of the younger sister of Jared, this kid killed by the hockey puck. She plays an important role in Trent’s story too, so I’m sure seeing the story from her eyes would be interesting as well. Cover’s not nearly as good though. 🙂