Summer of the Monkeys by Wilson Rawls (J)

Summer of the Monkeys

Summer of the Monkeys

Wilson Rawls (Young Adult Fiction)

Up until I was fourteen years old, no boy on earth could have been happier.  I didn’t have a worry in the world.  In fact, I was beginning to think that it wasn’t going to be hard at all for me to grow up.  But, just when things were really looking good for me, something happened.  I got mixed up with a bunch of monkeys and all of my happiness flew right out the window.  Those monkeys all but drove me out of my mind.

It’s the late 1800s and brand-new country just opened up for settlement.  The Lee family were sharecroppers in Missouri, but providence led them to a farm right in the middle of Cherokee Nation in northeastern Oklahoma.  Life is good for fourteen-year-old Jay Berry and his parents, although a bit tougher for his sister, Daisy, who was born with a twisted leg and got by with the help of a crutch.  It’s summer and Jay Berry has the entire farm to explore…not to mention he has his eyes set on owning his very own .22 and a pony.  But then his grandfather brings word that some monkeys have escaped the circus and the reward to anyone who finds them is more than Jay Berry can count!  With his grandfather’s help, Jay Berry sets off to find and capture those monkeys, even if it takes him the whole summer to do it.

I unashamedly admit that I am a complete pushover for any book where the parents are respected, the grandparents are revered, or a boy’s best friend is his trusted dog.  Written in 1976 by Wilson Rawls—author of the classic Where the Red Fern Grows—Summer of the Monkeys has all three.  Rawls gives us a lovely story about family, sacrifice, and faith and the importance of putting aside what your heart desires and instead focusing on what your heart requires.  The writing is down-to-earth and folksy and the lessons are timeless.  Today’s young adult readers may find the dialogue and situations a bit trite and hokey, but a story of a brother’s love for his little sister or a father’s pride in his son never truly goes out of style.

Throughout the book, Rawls shows us the strong bond of the Lee family and the particularly tender relationship between Jay Berry and his grandfather.  On one occasion, Jay Berry mentioned to his grandfather how much fun the two have together to which the grandfather replied, “We surely do.  You know, an old man like me can teach a young boy like you all the good things in life.  But it takes a young boy like you to teach an old man like me to appreciate all the good things in life.  I guess that’s what life’s all about.”  Call me old-fashioned or sentimental, but books like this always remind me that whenever you have a loving family, a wizened grandpa or a furry companion by your side, life is never really all that bad.

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

 

Tangerine by Edward Bloor (YA)

Tangerine

Tangerine

Edward Bloor (Young Adult Fiction)

The Fisher family—Dad, Mom, and sons Erik and Paul—are moving from Texas to Florida.  Their new home is in the prestigious Lake Windsor Downs subdivision located in Tangerine County.  Despite their new location, the family continues to move forward with the Erik Fisher Football Dream…dad’s favorite topic.  However, no such dream exists for Paul whose IEP lists him as legally blind.  But you don’t have to be blind to see all the strange things happening in Tangerine: the never-ending muck fires, disappearing koi, a giant school-swallowing sink hole, and lightning that strikes at the same time every day.  Things are definitely different in Tangerine and they’re about to get even more strange as Paul begins to piece together memories about a dark, family secret as fuzzy as his own eyesight.

I’m having a difficult time writing this review as the adult in me desperately wants to rip the title of “parent” from both Mr. and Mrs. Fisher.  In 1670, John Ray cited as a proverb, “Hell is paved with good intentions” and the Fisher parents embody this beautifully.  They have failed both of their sons dismally, and I can only hope that the audience this book was written for (young adults) realize this and understand the difference between parenting and passivity.  With that said, I shall cast aside my adultness and say that Tangerine does provide teens with some spot-on insights into the messy, harsh, and unforgiving world of middle and high school.  Edward Bloor gives us a story about the Haves and the Have Nots, where opportunity seems to favor those with money over those with moxie.  He shows us how a bunch of ragtag soccer players can be more of a family than your own kin.  And, he warns us of the danger of placing glory above goodness and confusing apathy with care.

Despite the flagrant shortcomings of some of the adults in this book, Bloor does give readers a modern-day hero in the likes of Paul Fisher—an underdog who pursues his dreams with relentless courage and moral conviction.  Never one to fall victim to his impairment, Paul proves himself to be a loyal, fearless, and worthy friend and shows everyone in Tangerine—including his own family—that he is more than just the sum of his parts.  From an early age, Paul realizes that life is often unfair and cruel, but by living in Tangerine where lightning does in fact strike twice, he understands that anything is possible and that even a kid labeled as legally blind can still see the good in people.

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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Things Not Seen by Andrew Clements (YA Science Fiction)

Things Not Seen

Things Not Seen    

Andrew Clements (Young Adult Science Fiction)

Did you ever wish that you were invisible or could just become invisible—even for a day?  Well that’s what happened to Robert “Bobby” Phillips one morning.  He goes to bed an average, normal fifteen-year-old boy and wakes up invisible.  There’s no explanation for it, although his physicist father knows that something doesn’t happen without a reason.  But how can this possibly happen?  What could have caused this?  Promising to keep his “condition” secret, Bobby and his parents frantically search for a cause and a cure because a boy that suddenly vanishes won’t go unnoticed for long.  But then Bobby meets Alicia, a blind girl he literally bumps into at the library.  Surely his secret would be safe with her?  After all, Bobby needs to share this with someone and maybe she can help because time is quickly running out.

Things Not Seen is the first of three books in the “Things” series by Andrew Clements.  In this installment, we are introduced to Bobby and his sarcastic yet devoted love interest Alicia Van Dorn.  This book has just enough science to make it a true science fiction, but not too much to bog down the story and lose reader interest.  Clements also gives us the standard fare of teenage angst: wanting acceptance from peers, craving independence from parents, and longing for a bit of attention from the opposite sex.  The need for acknowledgment, approval, and acceptance is truly universal, but these feelings are personified effectively through Bobby’s invisibility.

Throughout the book, we see Bobby’s new condition force an emotional awakening and maturity upon him.  What was a pleasant surprise was the evolution of his relationship with his parents (and vice versa).  Things Not Seen is a wonderful reminder that parents don’t always have the answers, and sometimes in order to really “see” someone, you simply just need to close your eyes and open your heart.

Rating: 4/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

 

War & Watermelon by Rich Wallace (YA Historical Fiction)

It’s Tween & Teen Tuesday when we review either a Juvenile (J) or Young Adult (YA) book.

War and Watermelon

War & Watermelon    

Rich Wallace (Young Adult Historical Fiction)

If you were to rank boys based on “coolness”, Brody Winslow would be near the bottom…low-middle at best.  But things could be worse.  It’s August 1969 and his brother Ryan could STILL avoid the draft (if he just got off his butt), the New York Mets COULD win a game (if they just got off their butt), and Brody MIGHT be a starter on his football team (if he could just stay off his butt).  All in all, things are looking pretty good.  In less than a month, Brody will be starting junior high school and his brother has promised to take him to a farm in upstate New York for some hippie concert protesting the war in Vietnam.  That might be fun.  Big changes are coming and Brody is about to tackle them all…whether he’s ready or not.

Rich Wallace started his early writing career as a sports editor for various New Jersey newspapers and his talent shows in War & Watermelon where the football and baseball references abound.  But what’s really at the core of this tender and sentimental book is the special bond shared by brothers Ryan and Brody.  Unlike the competitive or jealous sibling relationships you find in some books, the Winslow boys are fiercely supportive, loyal, and kind to one another.  As Ryan’s 18th birthday approaches—along with his draft status—Brody senses his brother’s increasing anxiety and is not sure how to comfort him: “I should get to bed; we’ve got another game tomorrow night.  But I wouldn’t be sleeping anyway, so I’d rather stay here with Ryan.  He’d been there for me.  Teaching me how to shoot a basketball or cook a hot dog.  Taking me to the movies, even when he goes to the drive-in with Jenny.  Giving me things like a Giants jersey he got too big for, or a flashlight when I was four and scared that there was a monster in my closet.  Now he’s scared.  I’m scared, too.  We might as well sit here together.”  There’s also a tight-knit relationship between Ryan, Brody, and their father.  Nights sitting up cheering on their Mets while eating olives and saltines or laughing out loud to re-reruns of The Honeymooners are clearly enjoyed and treasured by all three.

War & Watermelon is a humorous and delightful book about one young man trying to make a difference and one boy trying to make it through the day.  It’s a little slice of Americana served with grape soda pop and a bag of pretzels in front of a black and white TV.  It isn’t dramatic, suspenseful, thrilling, or riddled with angst.  Some may even go so far as to call it trite or boring.  But as Brody Winslow once said, “We wander around for an hour, shoot some baskets, then go home.  Yeah, it was boring, but that’s life.  Boring isn’t always so bad”.  I would even venture to say that boring can be great…now pass the olives and turn on the TV!

Rating: 4/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com 

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The Giver by Lois Lowry (YA Science Fiction)

The Giver

The Giver    

Lois Lowry (Young Adult Science Fiction)

It is against the rules to brag.  It is against the rules to keep your feelings hidden.  It is against the rules to point out someone’s differences.  There are a lot of rules in the community—rules that are very hard to change, but keep the community orderly, predictable, pleasant, and safe.  Rules are good and will be followed or offenders will face the terrible punishment of release.  Jonas has nothing to worry about because he follows the rules.  What he is worried about is the Ceremony of Twelve where he, along with the community’s other twelve-year-olds, will be separated into an Assignment Group and receive training for adult life.  Jonas isn’t sure what he is suited for: nurturer, doctor, speaker, engineer, laborer.  When the big day finally arrives, Jonas isn’t assigned like the others.  Instead, he is selected and for the first time in his life, he’ll know what’s it like to feel alone and apart.

Lois Lowry’s The Giver was published in 1993 and since that time, it has graced a spot on the American Library Association’s list of banned books.  Life really does seem to imitate art since members in Lowry’s fictional community are themselves banned from reading all books except the dictionary and The Book of Rules.  Lowry addressed this very issue in the F.A.Q. section of her website (www.loislowry.com) by saying, “I think banning books is a very, very dangerous thing. It takes away an important freedom. The world portrayed in The Giver is a world where choice has been taken away. It is a frightening world. Let’s work hard to keep it from truly happening.”  Much of the resistance to The Giver stems from its targeted age group (grades 5-8) with the ALA considering the book “unsuited to age group”.  I would tend to agree that the subjects discussed in this book are weighty and extremely complex (population control, free will, memory suppression, psychological manipulation).  Interestingly, while some schools are banning this book, others are embracing it and actually making it required reading.  With such sensitive topics as infanticide and geriatricide, The Giver is a book that clearly benefits from teacher-led group discussions.  Talking about individual choice, the challenges of change, and the benefits and drawbacks of constancy can be debated and explored in a thoughtful and engaging environment.

One of the things that Jonas learns from the Giver is that the community was built to protect people from their own wrong choices.  Almost like the ALA and their list of books.  As Lowry said on her site, “Any time there is an attempt to ban a book, you should fight it as hard as you can. It’s okay for a parent to say, ‘I don’t want my child to read this book.’ But it is not okay for anyone to try to make that decision for other people.”  We’re fighting, Ms. Lowry, as hard as we can.

Reviewer’s Note: The Giver is the first in a series of four books.  All take place in the same futuristic time era but have different protagonists.

Rating: 4/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.barnesandnoble.com

 

 

An Elephant in the Garden – Michael Morpurgo (YA Historical Fiction)

An Elephant in the Garden

An Elephant in the Garden    

Michael Morpurgo (Young Adult Historical Fiction)

Lizzie is eighty-two years old and is idly spending her days in a nursing home.  But today is February 13th and on this particular day, she has a story to tell.  It’s a rather sad story because on this day, in 1945, the bombers flew over Dresden, Germany and set the city on fire.  Lizzie, her brother, and her mother are forced to flee their home.  The Red Army is coming from the east and the allied forces—the Americans and British—are coming from the west.  They would go west, but they would not be going alone.  They would be bringing Marlene, a four-year-old elephant that Lizzie’s mother rescued from the zoo.  It would be this wonderful, gentle companion that would keep their spirits up, open unexpected doors, and ultimately save their lives.

Michael Morpurgo proves once again what a gifted and compassionate storyteller he is.  An Elephant in the Garden is a beautifully told and compelling story that transports the reader into war-torn Germany as thousands of refugees struggle for survival during World War II. His characters leap off the page and we are there to share in their daily quest for food, shelter, and obscurity from the encroaching Russian soldiers.  In his Author’s Note, Morpurgo writes that his story was inspired by an actual female zookeeper who saved one young elephant from certain death.  The zoo’s director had given orders that all animals were to be killed rather than risk their release into the town should the city fall under attack.  If you Google “Belgium, Zoo, Elephant, WWII”, you can see actual photographs and the story which inspired this heartwarming book.

At my library, this book is shelved in the young adult section; however, I think children as young as nine would appreciate and benefit from this story.  Stories about war are often dark and bleak, but the overall message of courage, resilience, friendship, and hope spans across all age groups and garners mutual appeal.

When Lizzie was conveying a moment in her youth, she recalled an instance when she was talking to Marlene, desperate to find some comfort and understanding from her silent friend.  She said, “For an answer she wafted her ears gently at me, and groaned deep inside herself.  It was enough to tell me that she had listened, and understood, and that she did not judge me.  I learned something that day from Marlene, about friendship, and I have never forgotten it.  To be a true friend, you have to be a good listener, and I discovered that day that Marlene was the truest of friends.”  Morpurgo reminds us that true friends not only listen with their ears, but also with their hearts and sometimes the best friends need not offer words in return, but simply just offer themselves.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com 

 

 

 

Silent to the Bone by E. L. Konigsburg (YA)

silent to the bone

Silent to the Bone    

E. L. Konigsburg (Young Adult Fiction)

“It is easy to pinpoint the minute when my friend Branwell began his silence.  It was Wednesday, November 25, 2:43 P.M., Eastern Standard Time.  It was there—or, I guess you could say not there—on the tape of the 911 call.”

They say, “For every Yin, there is a Yang”.  If that’s true, then Branwell Zamborska is the Yin to Connor Kane’s Yang.  Two friends the same age (born just weeks apart), going to the same school, and living just houses away from each other.  Connor will tell you that the biggest difference between them is that Branwell “is just plain different”.  He stands out in a crowd (quite literally—he is tall with bright red hair), is clumsy (he’s always dropping things), and likes offbeat music.  Still, they complement each other and even share secret “codes”.  Like BLUE PETER means “ready to go” and DAY CARE refers to their school.  Or SIAS, which requires you to “Summarize In A Sentence” a selected topic with points awarded afterward.  Given their closeness, it isn’t difficult to understand why Connor rushes to the aid of his friend, who has been rendered mute after his baby sister suffers a horrible accident and is struggling for life.  The message on the 911 tape is enough to send Barnwell to the Clarion County Juvenile Behavioral Center, but Connor knows his friend and is certain that Branwell is innocent.  But with Branwell rendered voiceless, how can the truth—whatever it is—be heard?

It is astonishing how many sensitive and provocative topics E. L. Konigsburg has dogpiled into one book:  psychological trauma, sexual awareness, emotional manipulation, divorce, jealousy, revenge.  But this isn’t the tawdry and explicit book that one might expect.  Instead, Konigsburg handles each subject with sensitivity and care and scratches just enough of the surface to allow readers to reach their own obvious conclusions.  This book is targeted from readers ages 10 and up, so some concepts may get a perplexed look from those on the younger end of the scale (“Hey, what’s Viagra?”) so be prepared for some possible teachable moments.

In addition to tackling so many complex issues with such finesse, Silent to the Bone received my highest review because of the deep bond that these two boys shared.  This book was published in 2000, and you don’t often see the kind of unshakable, unquestioning, and unwavering devotion that Connor has for Branwell in many of today’s young adult books.  In this age of jealousy, popularity, spite, ego, and peer pressure, friends are easily interchangeable.  Connor is placed in the most impossible and unthinkable of circumstances by a friend who has totally withdrawn from the world.  At any moment (and there are many), he could have simply given up and walked away.  But somehow Connor finds a faint voice in the silence and that alone drives him to not give up on his friend nor abandon his cause.

E.L. Konigsburg gives readers a suspenseful book that explores the bond of friendship and demonstrates just how far that connection can be stretched without ever really breaking.  I think if I had to SISA this book, I’d use the words of Yolanda, the day worker who lives across the street from the Zamborskas.  When Connor explained to her how he had found a way to “talk” with Branwell, she said, “Friends always find a way to keep in touch.”  Nine words.  I wonder how many points Connor and Branwell would give me for that one?

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com