“The Westing Game” by Ellen Raskin

The Plot In Five Sentences Or Less: When the great paper magnate Samuel G. Westing dies under suspicious circumstances, 16 people are summoned to his mansion to hear his will read aloud.  In fact, they are all drawn into a game where they must pair up with another heir and decipher clues that are handed to them in order to determine the identity of the killer and inherit the Westing fortune.  Could it be Turtle Wexler, the wily 13 year old who can play the stock market like a champ?  Or perhaps it’s Sydelle Pulaski, who copies the will down in short hand — in Polish.  Suspicion abounds and the plot twists and turns as the 16 heirs narrow down who among them may have killed Samuel Westing.

My Take:  I’ve been wanting to read this book for a long time because it comes recommended whenever I search for mystery books for kids.  Unfortunately, I can’t say that I enjoyed it.  I found the characters, while quirky, to not be emotionally fleshed out.  I also felt that the emotional hook of the narrative — to find Sam Westing’s killer– to be lost in an ocean of detail.  To be fair, Raskin is juggling over 16 characters and trying to keep them all distinct in the reader’s mind–a high wire act for any writer to be sure.  But over half way through the book, I found that I had stopped caring who the killer was.

One Interesting Note About the Author: Ellen Raskin designed the dust jacket for the first edition of Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time.

“The Fourteenth Goldfish” by Jennifer L. Holm

The Plot In Five Sentences Or Less:  Eleven year old Ellie’s life and that of her mother is turned upside down when an eccentric 13 year old boy wanders into their home one evening.  He wears tweed jackets and polyester pants, grouses about the depreciation of their home, and has a keen interest in science.  Most shockingly, he claims to be Dr. Sargarsky, noted scientist and also Ellie’s grandfather.  Has her 76 year old scientist grandfather actually found a way to reverse the aging process?

My Take:  This was an enjoyable read, but I did not fall in love with the book.  I found the character of the grandfather too grouchy, arrogant, and self centered to conjure up much interest in following what happens to him.  To Holm’s credit, she does show different sides to him, most notably the pain that he feel regarding the loss of his wife.  Still, for those looking for a book on inter-generational connection or the driving power of science, this would be an excellent pick.  Ages 8+

One Interesting Note About the Author:  Jennifer L. Holm is a prolific children’s author, having written the famous Babymouse series as well as the recent graphic novel Sunny Side Up.

“The London Eye Mystery” by Siobhan Dowd

The Plot In Five Sentences Or Less:  Ted’s mind works a bit different than most people’s in that he’s great with numbers and facts, but not so adept at reading emotions.  When his cousin Salim comes to visit for a day, Ted and his sister Kat decide to take him on the London Eye, a giant ferris wheel on the southside of the Thames.  Ted and Kat watch Salim get on the ride and go to meet him at the return point, but Salim has somehow disappeared.  Will Ted and Kat be able to put their own unique minds together and solve the mystery and find Salim?

My Take:  I had seen this book on many short lists and had been wanting to read it for some time.  I was not disappointed.  Dowd does an excellent job of not only developing a mystery, but also of putting the reader into the mind of a person with high functioning autism.  I would recommend this to any child who is looking for a great mystery or is interested in learning more about what it’s like to live with Aspergers syndrome.  Ages 10+

One Interesting Note About The Author: Siobhan Dowd passed away too soon in 2007 at the young age of 47.  Prior to writing children’s books, she spent her life advocating for socially marginalized youth, including serving as the Deputy Commissioner for Children’s Rights in Oxfordshire.

 

“A Long Walk To Water” by Linda Sue Park

 

The Plot In Five Sentences Or Less:  Salva is a boy who  growning up in the south Sudan village of Loun-Ariik in 1980’s.  While attending school one day, his peaceful life is shattered by the tribal conflict tearing apart Sudan.  Fleeing his village as it is attacked, Salva joins a group of refugees heading east to a destination unknown to him.  Along the way, he luckily encounters his uncle, the only person he recognizes as well as possibly his  only surviving family member.  With his uncle and the rest of the refugees, Salva continues his trek towards a fate that will test him to the extreme and take him places he never thought he would go.

My Take:  Having read A Single Shard a few years ago, I was well acquainted with Park’s writing being characterized by a modest plainness that belies a deeper, quiet strength, or what one reviewer referred to as a “core moral purposefulness.”  A Long Walk To Water carried on in this tradition with its exploration of one of the most horrific situations in modern times: the war in the Sudan.   Genocide is not necessarily fertile ground on which to base juvenile fiction, but Park handles the subject deftly.  Through the character of Salva, she manages to depict the brutality in a way that children will understand but that also makes allowances for the sensitivity of young  minds.  Those looking for a thoughtful way to talk to young readers about conflict and the moral choice to turn suffering into social contribution could do worse than choosing this wonderful book.  Ages 10+

One Interesting Note About The Author:  According to her website, Linda Sue Park’s first piece of writing that was published was a haiku that was accepted by a children’s magazine when she was 9 years old:  In the green forest/  A sparkling, bright blue pond hides./  And animals drink.

“Firstborn” by Tor Seidler

The Plot In Five Sentences Or Less:  Maggie is a magpie born on a ranch in southwestern Montana.  Unsatisfied with her narrow life, she takes up with a pack of wolves who have recently been reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park.  Led by the alpha named Blue Boy, Maggie and the wolves struggle to survive and carve out their territory in this new land.  Blue Boy’s son Lamar challenges his father’s wishes by falling in love with a coyote and threatening the purity of the bloodline.  Threats both inside and outside the pack will test the bonds of these wolves to the limit.

My Take: Much of Firstborn is caught up with portraying the various tense dynamics among the wolves: the rupture of the pack when the alpha is challenged for dominance, the friction between father and son, the clash with a neighboring pack, etc.  This is all set against the larger story of the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park. Seidler deftly explores this controversial program and the great toll that it takes on the wolves that are caught up in it.

Fans of the Wolves of Beyond by Lasky series will appreciate this book and in general I thought that this was an excellent recommendation for elementary aged readers looking for animal fiction.  Librarians may want to be aware that there is a good deal of animal violence in this book before recommending it.  Ages 9-12.

One Interesting Note About the Author:  According to his website, Tor traces his love of storytelling back to his childhood when his stepfather and brother would spin fantastic yarns involving animals.

The Flowers Are Calling by Rita Gray

The Plot In Five Sentences Or Less: A poem describes the different insects and animals that may, or may not, visit flowers for pollinating.  Interspersed between the verses are facts about the flowers and insects.

My Take:  The strength of Flowers Are Calling lies in its alternation between verse and nonfiction.  Each of these elements is strong enough to stand on its own, but the book really broadens its appeal by combining the two.  One could engage younger children by just reading the poem, which is characterized by short, simple text, but also interest older readers by going over the fact based sections of the book.

The poem’s structure stands on the repetition of the phrase “Flowers are calling…” and the quick correction when whatever is named turns out to be unfit for appreciating the flowers.  One verse, for example, states “Flowers are calling a loud blue jay./  No, not a jay! He wouldn’t stay.”  The quick turnaround lends an element of whimsy to the book.

The nonfiction parts of the book help to deepen the reader’s understanding of what is occurring in the poem.  For example, when a “bee fly” is mentioned in a verse, we learn on the next page that “bee flies look like bumblebees but have two wings instead of four.”  I found myself confessing that there was a lot that I did not know about the pollination of flowers.

Special mention should be made of Kenard Pak’s beautiful art.  The muted colors and use of blank space on the page ask the reader to take seriously what is occurring.  We imagine that each animal and flower is significant and has a part to play in this story of pollination.

I’m always looking for quality books that are stand-alone (as opposed to a series) nonfiction that will appeal to younger children.  I’d happily recommend this book to most any library collection that is looking to develop a substantive juvenile nonfiction section.

One Interesting Note About the Author/Illustrator:  According to Rita Gray’s website, she “love[s] all types of poetry, especially haiku, and [is] the Northeast Regional Coordinator for the Haiku Society of America.”  Pretty neat!

“The Crossover” by Kwame Alexander

The Plot In Five Sentences Or Less: Josh and his twin brother JB both love basketball and are powering their high school team to the county championships.  Their father, who was once a professional basketball player, has taught them everything they know about the game and couldn’t be prouder of their success.  Although there has always been a good natured rivalry between the twins, the tension increases when JB gets a girlfriend.  With his father’s health failing, Josh finds himself in a place that he’s never been before: alone.

My Take:  I can understand why this verse novel won the Newberry Award this year.  Kwame Alexander’s poetry captures well the emotional texture of Josh’s life, whether it’s the intensity of a basketball game or the simmering rivalry between twin brothers.  The author’s use of ellipsis, of what is unsaid but understood, propels the narrative forward.  Alexander never pesters the reader with details, but uses the verse form to put us in Josh’s shoes and allows us to feel what he feels.  The final pages gave me goosebumps.  Excellent read for ages 13+.

One Interesting Note About the Author:  According to his website, Kwame Alexander has “written 18 books, owned several publishing companies, written for the stage and television (TLC’s “Hip Hop Harry”), recorded a CD, performed at schools and conferences around the world, produced jazz and book festivals, hosted a weekly radio show, worked for the U.S. Government, and taught in a high school.”  Wow!