“My Life As A Book” by Janet Tashjian

Image result for my life as a bookThe Plot In Five Sentences Or Less: As the school year winds down, Derek Fallon finds a newspaper clipping in the attic about a girl who drowned 12 years ago off of Martha’s Vineyard.  Derek is curious to find out more about the girl but is stonewalled by his parents.  On top of that, because of his poor grades and general misbehavior, his parents decide to send him to Learning Camp over the summer.  Derek struggles through the daily lessons and math games at the camp and in his spare time investigates the mystery of the drowned girl.  When he convinces his parents to take a vacation to Martha’s Vineyard, Derek hopes that he will be able to get to the bottom of the mystery.

My Take:  I had difficulty enjoying the character of Derek Fallon.  In several instances throughout the book, he engages in behavior that is hurtful to others, but he never seems to have a full reckoning with it.  The author’s intent was probably for comic effect directed at younger readers, but I couldn’t get past that Derek has a side to him that was cruel and selfish.  The author showed little interest in exploring this side of Derek (which, honestly, would probably have made a more interesting read!) or the consequences of his actions.  His immature behavior subsides for several chapters near the end when he is finding out the truth behind the mystery.  Rather than it being a convincing character change, however, I found these chapters to be distinctly out of place with the rest of the book and I never believed Derek’s transformation to be earned.  I would be hesitant to recommend this book to young readers unless they enjoyed sarcasm and poor choices on the part of the main character.

One Interesting Note About The Author:  The My Life book series is illustrated by her son Jake.

“Caterpillar Summer” by Gillian McDunn

Image result for caterpillar summer by mcdunnThe Plot In Five Sentences Or Less:  Due to a last minute change of plans, Cat and her younger brother Chicken must spend 3 weeks of their summer vacation with grandparents whom they have never met.  They live on an island in North Carolina, which is at once an idyllic setting, but also presents challenges to Cat who must manage Chicken special needs, including his tendency to run off.  As Cat struggles with her brother’s behavior, she draws closer to her grandparents and to other children on the island.  Through these relationships, she discovers new things about herself, but also wounds that hopefully her time on the island can help heal.

My Take:  This is a strong first novel by Gillian McDunn and makes a respectable entry into the canon of realistic juvenile literature.  The central story of the book is Cat’s growth and change over the summer and her struggle to understand the things that have pulled her family apart in the past.  McDunn makes a strong argument that the youngest  members are sometimes the best ones to offer an opportunity for a family’s fresh start.  The author is adept at exploring several heavy themes — such as the inherent loneliness in care taking, the way that bullies themselves are victimized, the need to control, etc. — without making this into an ‘issues book.’  I would happily recommend this to any reader around 11 years who is ready to consider some heavy themes.

One Interesting Note About The Author:  The book Caterpillar Summer is in part inspired by McDunn’s relationship with her brother who multiple disabilities.