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

 

 

Alchemy and Meggy Swann by Karen Cushman (YA Historical Fiction)

Alchemy and Meggy Swann

Alchemy and Meggy Swann   

Karen Cushman (Young Adult Historical Fiction)

“The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances; if there is any reaction, both are transformed.” – Carl Jung

After the death of her gran, Margaret “Meggy” Swann is carted from Millford Village to London and unceremoniously deposited at the doorstep of her father, Master Ambrose, the local alchemist.  Meggy is none too pleased with her new home: heads mounted on sticks and placed on a bridge, the smell of fish and sewage everywhere, and streets slick and slippery from horse droppings.  Ye toads and vipers!  What kind of place IS this London?  Between a mother who was pleased to see the back of her and a father who assumes she is a beggar upon their first introduction, Meggy has found herself in a rather unenviable position.  She is crippled, penniless, and friendless…unless you count her goose, Louise.  But Meggy is stronger than she thinks and with the help of a cooper, a printer, and a rather smitten player, she’ll not only save a life, but she’ll manage to save a soul as well.

From her first utterance of, “Ye toads and vipers”, I fell in love with Meggy Swann.  She is scrappy, sassy, resourceful, impish, loyal, and brave.  She is disabled (suffering from what we would today recognize as bilateral hip dysplasia), but doesn’t seek sympathy, pity, or charity.  In a time when deformity and illness were viewed as a direct judgment from God, it would have been easy for Meggy to become bitter from the taunts and jeers unmercifully thrown at her by villagers both young and old alike.  While in Millford Village, she was able to stay somewhat isolated and protected within her mother’s alehouse; however, in London her lameness is on full display and it is at this moment when we see Meggy’s pluck and spirit begin to emerge.  No longer will she be the meek victim of unfair slurs and prejudices.  While her father is busy transforming metals in his laboratorium, Meggy is experiencing her own transformation into a strong, proud, and confident young woman who refuses to let her circumstances define or limit her.

This story is set in 1573 London and Cushman successfully transports readers to the Elizabethan Era through her usage of period-appropriate language.  This requires having to adjust to the frequent occurrences of words such as naught (nothing), certes (certainly), mayhap (perhaps), belike (very likely), and sooth (truth), but given the age this book targets (12 years and above), the acclimation should be quick and painless.

There are so many lessons that one could glean from this book, but perhaps the most poignant was one that Meggy learned from a flightless goose: “Even Louise had given the girl something, the knowledge that one did not have to be perfect to be beauteous.”  And that is something worth remembering, be ye toad or viper.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com

I Don’t Know How the Story Ends by J. B. Cheaney (YA Historical Fiction)

I Dont Know How the Story Ends

I Don’t Know How the Story Ends

J. B. Cheaney (Young Adult Historical Fiction)

“The first I heard of Mother’s big idea was May 20, 1918, at 4:35 p.m. in the entrance hall of our house on Fifth Street.  That was where my little sister ended up after I pushed her down the stairs.”

Matilda Ransom was tired of the dreariness of Seattle and the restlessness of her daughters and decided that the three of them would spend the summer in California.  Isobel (Izzy) wasn’t too keen on the idea, but between her father being in France serving in the Great War and her constant bickering with her little sister, Sylvie, her mother’s mind was made up.  The family was off to visit Aunt Buzzy in Los Angeles.  Izzy would soon find herself pulled away from the security of her books and thrust into the world of early Hollywood—filled with silent screen stars, bigger-than-life directors, Keystone Cops, a moving panorama, and a headstrong boy determined to make a name for himself in film.  For a girl who loves to tell stories, this summer would undoubtedly provide Izzy with more than enough content.

Historical Fiction is my favorite genre, so when I see an interesting topic written especially for younger readers, I am beyond thrilled.  Being surrounded by everything digital, it was a joy to escape to Hollywood’s earliest years and learn more about the world of the silent screen.  Cheaney introduces her readers to such directorial deity as D. W. Griffith, Mark Sennett, and Cecil B. DeMille, as well as screen legends Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, and Mary Pickford.  Cheaney allows us to be a part of the action by giving us a first-hand look at staging, lighting, makeup, filming, and post-production editing.  We often forget just how skilled and talented these early filmmakers were and I, for one, am grateful to her for reminding us of their groundbreaking brilliance.

In addition to the glamour and glitz of Hollywood, this book also examines the reality of a world at war and the brave men who returned home, but forever left a part of themselves on the battlefield.  During a particularly difficult moment, Izzy’s friend, Sam, once said to her, “Some film can’t be cut” meaning that some things just can’t be fixed and some matters can’t be undone.  While the entire book is informative and entertaining, it is the last few pages that are the most touching, emotional, and poignant.  For the first time, Izzy sees her story told and knows exactly how it ends.  Izzy’s Aunt Buzzy once told her, “Life is like that—the strangest or most unwelcome, even the saddest things that happen can come to make sense in the end.”  Like the movies in early Hollywood, Izzy’s story didn’t need any sound.  All it needed was a picture…a picture of what true love really looked like.

“Remember how small the world was before I came along?  I brought it all to life: I moved the whole world onto a 20-foot screen.”—D. W. Griffith, Director, Writer, Producer.  Thank you for making the world a whole lot bigger Mr. Griffith.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com 

 

Dogsong by Gary Paulsen (YA)

Dogsong.jpg

Dogsong    

Gary Paulsen (Young Adult Fiction)

During the winter, Russel Susskit and his father live in a sixteen by twenty government house in a small Eskimo village.  Come summer, both will move to the fish camps.  For now, Russel wakes up every morning to his father’s smoking-induced cough; the absence of his mother, who left with a white trapper; and the growing unhappiness he feels when he thinks of his current life and, more importantly, his future.  Russel wants to be more, but when he looks ahead, he only sees less.  Russel’s father sends him to the local shaman, Oogruk, who owns the last team of dogs in the village.  Oogruk tells Russel that he needs to discover his own song and returning to the old ways of his people may help.  Driven by a recurring dream and a team of five great red dogs, Russel heads north searching for answers and a song.

Dogsong is divided into two parts: Russel’s training with Oogruk and his solitary journey north.  It is the second part of this book that is disappointing and not particularly compelling.  We find ourselves caught in a seemingly tedious storyline loop:  run, eat, dream, repeat.  The story drags like a sled maneuvering through slush and Paulsen fails to provide enough action to hold either the reader’s interest or attention.  A sudden story twist near the end arrives far too late to save what could have been an interesting boy-versus-nature adventure story.

One notable bright spot was Oogruk’s advice to Russel about life and living.  “It isn’t the destination that counts,” Oogruk said.  “It is the journey.  That is what life is.  A journey.  Make it the right way and you will fill it correctly with days.  Pay attention to the journey.”  All too often we find ourselves consumed or distracted by the things that have little to no effect on our life or circumstances.  In hindsight, we often come to realize that it is the small things that have the biggest impact.  If we take an old shaman’s advice and simply look up, look around, and pay attention, perhaps we too can find the words to our own song.

Rating: 3/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com