A search for peace among war

51pf6phqmrlPax, by Sara Pennypacker (2016)

Opening line: “The fox felt the car slow before the boy did, as he felt everything first.”

Get ready for a heart-breaker, friends.

Years ago, while playing in the woods, Peter stumbled across a dead mother fox and her litter of pups, all but one of whom were also dead. The tiniest one was somehow surviving, and Peter brought him home and named him Pax. Since that moment, the two, boy and fox, were inseparable. But now war is upon them, and Peter’s father is joining the effort, meaning that Peter must go live with his grandfather, where Pax is not allowed. Heartbroken, but seeing no other option, he releases him into the wild, where he hopes he will be safe. Pax, of course, doesn’t understand, and plans to wait until his boy returns. But when hunger sets in and danger lurks, that plan isn’t quite so easy.

Meanwhile, the moment Peter arrives at his grandfather’s, he knows he made a mistake leaving Pax behind. He will know no peace until he finds Pax again. So he sets out in the middle of the night, planning to hike the couple hundred miles back to where he left his fox. As you might imagine, things go array pretty quickly.

The chapters switch back and forth between Peter’s story and Pax’s, as both are desperate to reunite with the other. The alternating perspectives spur the story forward, allowing the reader to feel that desperation as well. Those who loved One and Only Ivan will love Pax as well, and it is well-deserving of its spot on the NBA Young People’s Literature longlist for 2016.

2 stars

 

 

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Finding truth while being lost

51w1vnrjk9lThe Distance Between Lost and Found, by Kathryn Holmes (2015)

Opening line: “The laughter starts as a low murmur.”

Hallelujah Calhoun has found herself back at a church youth camp, after an extended absence from all youth group activities. Although the reader isn’t clear about what happened exactly, we know that it involved the preacher’s son, Luke, and extremely disappointed parents. We know that since, Hallie has quit choir, has lost her friends, and has retreated inside herself. But now she’s back at camp, hiking through the Smokey Mountains, and every moment in the same vicinity as Luke and his cohort is excruciating.

There is a new girl at camp, however, named Rachel, who is outgoing and attempts to befriend Hallie. When she and Rachel and Jonah (Hallie’s friend prior to the Luke incident) find themselves separated from the hiking group, Rachel is insistent in hiking back to camp, and Hallie and Jonah agree to go with her. But when they reach a Y in the trail, they choose the wrong path, and soon are completely lost. Day turns to night turns to morning and night again, and days  go by without any sign of rescue. Before long, their situation turns dangerous, and they have to rely on each other entirely if they are going to have any hope for survival.

I struggled to get into this one. I found myself dreading finding out what actually happened between Hallie and Luke, while I was simultaneously somewhat bored by the tedium of their being lost in the woods. Nothing was particularly wrong with the novel, I just wasn’t immersed. But THEN, for the last 150 pages, I simply could not put it down. The intensity of their situation picks up, we finally hear the full story of “the incident” (don’t worry middle school librarians, it’s early-teen friendly, and even a healthy way for teens to explore early romantic pressures), and we are able to see some hope among their desperation.

Hallie’s story is wonderfully relateable, and I will definitely recommend it to my kiddos.

2 stars

Get ready to be swept up

51zohd5wlplThis is the Story of You, by Beth Kephart (2016)

Opening line: “Blue, for example. Like the color that sun makes the sea. Like the beach bucket he wore as a hat, king of the tidal parade. Like the word and the hour of nobody awake but me. I thought blue was mine, and that we were each ourselves, and that some things could not be stolen. I thought the waves would rise up, toss down, rinse clean, and that I would still be standing here, solid. I was wrong about everything.”

Okay, so, confession time… sometimes I buy books because they’re pretty. Perhaps you think this is an irresponsible use of school money, but I say, IF IT’S PRETTY, THEY’LL CHECK IT OUT. I mean, I did. (Plus, of course, it had some great reviews, so low risk). I feel like I’m just rewarding the graphic designers for doing their job well.

So, because #IJudgeBooksByTheirCovers, there was a chance this would be a dud. But GUYS, I LOVED THIS.

As someone who reads a lot of middle grade fiction, I’m sometimes wildly surprised by beautiful writing. That’s not to say that middle grade fiction doesn’t have good writing, but it has its audience. And that audience is primarily made up of 8-12-year-olds. Not 28 year old former English majors. So when I come across a book whose language and writing is as beautiful as its story, I may become obsessed. I mean, check out that opening line I included at the top. Usually, I just have an opening sentence. But I couldn’t stop at a sentence! I just couldn’t!

Mira lives with her mother and younger brother on Haven, a small island just off the Jersey Shore, where the summers are filled with tourists and the off-season is filled with racing around the 3 sq miles of island with her two best friends, Eva and Deni, on their “modes” (of transportation): a golf cart for Deni, a skateboard for Eva, and a pair of old school skates for Mira. Mira’s brother, Jasper Lee, has a crippling congenital illness that requires weekly treatments on the mainland, so on this particular Wednesday, it’s normal that her mother and brother hop in the car and head off of Haven. It’s normal when the clouds roll across the waves, because as the weather forecasters tell them, it’s headed back to sea. It’s normal.

But it’s not normal when her mom calls to tell her that Jasper Lee had a terrible reaction to one of the medications and has to stay at the hospital for several days. It’s not normal when she sees a dark shadow of a person walk up her boardwalk to her house and shuffle around for a while before walking away. It’s not normal when the wind and rain pick up and it’s clear the storm did not head back out to sea.

After a terrifying night, which Mira almost doesn’t survive, she is forced to head out to check out the damage of the island, and see how she’s going to pick up the pieces.

Like I said, the lyrical and poetic writing just swept me along with the story, and made me stay up way past my normal sleepy-girl bedtime. I hope my students will be swept along like me, rather than stuck at what may not be as straightforward as they’re used to.

2.5 stars

The Mountain calls.

61fvtvw74elThe Honest Truth, by Dan Gemeinhart (2015)

Opening Line: “The mountain was calling me.”

I mean, I get it. One of the best things about my new living situation is that when I turn a corner I might get surprised by a sudden mountain view. And the mountain this opening line is specifically about, Mt. Rainier, is particularly noteworthy. I vividly remember the time my family went on perhaps the greatest roadtrip vacation ever, along the northern west coast, and had been at Mt. Rainier National Park all day without seeing the actual mountain because of clouds, and then, on our way out, we came around a bend and THERE IT WAS IN ALL ITS MAGICAL GLORY.

rainier

I mean, you see those “mountains” down at the bottom? That’s what we thought were the mountains before this bad boy came into view.

So, I get it. The mountain calls to me too. Not that I’m going to try to climb it, like Mark does in The Honest Truth.

Mark is a normal kid. As normal as a kid who has been through multiple cancer treatments, beating the odds, can be. But now the cancer is back. And Mark is out of options.

More than anything, Mark wants to follow his grandfather’s dreams of climbing Mt. Rainier, but he knows his parents will never let him with his current diagnosis. And so, he sets off on his own, with just his beloved dog Beau, telling no one — with the exception of leaving a secret haiku for his best friend Jess.

While Jess struggles with whether to tell Mark’s parents where she’s pretty sure he went, Mark journeys across state lines with little Beau. Despite his well-orchestrated plans, things go awry, and the trip is much more difficult than Mark imagined. Still, his determination will stop at nothing to reach the summit.

This story is raw and honest and the reader feels the desperation Mark feels along the way. If you have readers like I do that “want something that’s going to make me cry”, suggest this. You will never feel sorry for Mark, but you will definitely feel for him (and bff Jess, unsure of what she should do to save her friend).

All heart, this one. 2 stars.

 

Clinging to Winter (but not really, because winter’s the worst)

Snow Like Ashes, by Sara Raasch (2014)

Opening Line: “Block!”

I’ve been falling behind on my blogging lately, guys. I was doing so well! Sheesh. But here’s another one for next year’s SC Junior Book Award list, and since I’m anxiously reading it’s sequel right now, I feel capable of blogging about it, even though it’s been a while. Plus, it’s one of my favorites so far, and before the list, I had never heard of it, which means you may not have either!

Set in a sprawling fantasy world with eight major kingdoms (complete with a map in the end papers!), Snow Like Ashes gives us our heroine, Meira, one of just eight refugees from the Kingdom of Winter. Meira was an infant when Winter fell to the evil hands of Angra, king of Spring, and all of her fellow Winterians were captured and put into slave labor. Only a handful — including Meira — escaped. Sixteen years later, the refugees are still quietly fighting to recapture the magic emblem of their fallen monarch, Queen Hannah, in hopes that when it is recovered, Winter can be restored, despite the fact that Hannah’s heir Mather (who was also a baby at the fall), does not carry his mother’s female-lined powers. All Meira wants is to help the cause, but she is routinely stopped by Sir, the leader of their pack, forced to remain in the safety of camp while Mather and the others regularly put themselves in danger. When she finally gets a chance, Meira goes way beyond Sir’s expectations — she actually recovers the treasure, Queen Hannah’s locket! Unfortunately, it’s only half the locket, and Meira’s actions send the group on the run again, right into a destiny Meira never expected, one that’s been in the making ever since Winter fell all those years ago.

I got totally wrapped up in Meira’s story. Like Katsa in Graceling (one of my faves), she’s independent, fierce, courageous (feeling her fear and acting anyway), and believable. She doesn’t always understand what’s happening around her or to her, but her determination just makes you desperate for her to succeed. And let’s be honest, the very mild love triangle interest has my heart beating just as fast as any tween reader’s.

So here’s the thing. I feel like fantasies sometimes get a weird reputation — I have a hard time selling them at school, especially to girls, unless they are the Rick Riordan/Harry Potter readers. “I don’t really like magic stuff,” they say. “Percy Jackson was okay when I was like ten,” they say. The set for the older crowd, again especially older girls, seems to somehow be overlooked. But this one, along with GracelingThe Red Queen, and a whole host of others, are oh-so-good, and I think would be devoured by the same readers who love Divergent and Matched and Delirium and Legend. Why is it that dystopians are so much easier to sell than fantasies? Perhaps it’s because they are often more difficult to explain than dystopians. I’m not saying dystopians are all the same (but, come on, a lot of them are), and I’m not saying fantasies are wildly unique, but somehow the typically complex setting and the array of fantastic elements are more challenging to encompass in a 60 second booktalk in the middle of the shelves, than, “Here, this one reminds me of Divergent because of this thing that happens in the future and and this character who has to go against everything she’s ever known to save the world. You want to read it? Okay, great.”

If any one has any tips for me for selling fantasies to middle schoolers, I’m all ears. Because I want this one to be a top contender on next year’s JBA list, and I’m afraid I’m not going to do it justice with getting it in the hands of my readers.

Onto the next one, Ice Like Fire, and anxiously awaiting the third, Frost Like Night, expected September 2016.

2.5 stars

 

A beautiful surprise

51fb-u69shlBehind the Beautiful Forevers, by Katherine Boo (2012)

Opening line: “Let it keep, the moment when Officer Fish Lips met Abdul in the police station.”

This one was tough. It took me like 6 months to read, because I could only take so much at a time. And I was just reading it. It’s unimaginable to be living it. But this incredibly researched piece of stunning non-fiction absolutely deserves it’s National Book Award (and the four other awards it won).

Author Katherine Boo married into Indian culture and became fascinated by the startling clash of affluence so close to extreme poverty that she saw in Mumbai, particularly in the Annawadi slum on the other side of the road from the Mumbai airport. For years, Katherine spent her days among the residents of this slum, chronicling their struggles and successes, their joys and pain, their complications and hopes. While obviously life in the Annawadi slum is horrendously difficult, what this book does so well is show us privileged white Americans that that’s not all it is. Katherine profiles several Annawadian families over these 250 pages, including a family with a productive garbage picking business, a young woman who hopes to become the first female college graduate from Annawadi, and her mother who plans on taking on the roll of the “slum-lord” of the community. It’s not about feeling sorry for these people. It’s about seeing their strength in spite of and because of their surroundings. It’s about noticing their humanity, recognizing pieces of them that are in all of us. It’s about realizing our complicity in creating a world where realities like these exist.

That’s not even to mention her writing, which is SO DAMN FANTASTIC, it’s breathtaking.

Everyone should read this book, but be wary of when. This is not a quick or enjoyable read, so if that’s what you’re looking for, look again. But oh-so-worthwhile.

2.5 star

 

Strange, scary, swampy stories

618x1sxqvnlThe Dreadful Fate of Jonathan York, by Kory Merritt (2015)

Opening line: “Beware Pen-tip Polishers and Ditto Wranglers.”

What a delightfully weird book this is. Oh, how I loved it. Someone on Goodreads said it was as if Edgar Allan Poe, Dr. Seuss, and Tim Burton all sat down and wrote a book together, and Paperbackstash was right.

Jonathan York got himself lost in the swamp on his way home, and it’s getting dark. Of course, that means it’s getting a little too “Snow White in the creepy woods scene” for him, and he’s only all too happy when he happens upon three strangers who suggest he accompany them to a nearby inn. Luckily for Jonathan, the innkeepers don’t accept money as payment, only stories. Really good stories. Unfortunately for Jonathan, he’s terrified of public speaking and cannot think of a single story.

The strangers have some wild stories, indeed. But when it’s Jonathan’s turn, he’s kicked to the curb (or the dark, shadowy swamp) after failing to produce a story. And so begins the most wild story of his life.

The artwork, while sometimes SUPER creepy, also has lots of great and hilarious details. You can tell that this creator is just as much an artist as a storyteller. I also love that stories are the form of exchange here. That should be the case more often, right?

2.5 stars