Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage

threetimesluckyPlot:  11 year old Moses LoBeau lives in the small town of Tupelo Landing, North Carolina.  She has lived there most of her life since she floated in (literally) during a hurricane when she was an infant.

For this reason, Mo has never known her real parents, but she is content to help run the local diner with her adopted parents Miss Lana and the Colonel.   When not serving up a heap of sass and fried food at the cafe, her favorite pastime is going fishing with her best friend Dale.

The small town life of Tupelo Landing is disrupted when the local grouch Jessee Tatum turns up dead in the creek.  Detective Starr and his sidekick deputy Marla arrive in town from Winston Salem determined to find and stop the killer.

Mo and Dale decide to aid in the investigation by forming their own group, the Desperado Detectives.  They soon have their work cut out for them when both the Colonel and Miss Lana go missing.

Personal Reaction:  I immediately had some reservations with Three Times Lucky from the very first chapter.  This was due to its treading upon territory overly familiar to anyone who reads children’s literature.  Turnage chose to write the novel in the first person and in a faux southern, rural style that seems so prevalent in juvenile and YA fiction but tends to wear on me quickly.  I’ve never met a child that speaks in the sassy similes of Mo Lobeau, but between Walk Two Moons and A Year Down Yonder, it makes me think that the Newberry Medal committees have a soft spot for this type of overwrought, country speak.

Also, another well-mined theme of kid lit appears early on when we discover that the protagonist is an orphan and looking for her biological mother.  If I had a dime…

My enjoyment of the book did not increase as I read further due to the elasticity of the plot.  When Mr. Jesse turns up dead, it is assumed that the killer must still be in Tupelo Landing, although no reason is given for this assumption.   Furthermore, when the identity of the perpetrator is finally revealed (with 100 pages of the book to go!), I could not help but feel that this character was awkwardly inserted into the plot.   Also, one of Mo’s pastimes is chucking note-filled bottles into the river hoping that her birth mother will find them.   Every time that she does this, I can’t help but think that a child as bright as Mo would sooner be down at the local public library on the computer searching for her mother on the Internet.

Still, Turnage does have an ability to turn a phrase.  Dale fixes his eyes so hard on a car “like he could stare the shine right off of it.”  Another character’s voice seems “shaved from ice.”  I suspect this vivid phrasing helped this novel a great deal towards becoming a Newberry Honor book

Themes:  orphan, double identities, lost pasts, who-done-it mystery, North Carolina/southern culture

Breaking Stalin’s Nose by Eugene Yelchin

Ten year old Sasha Zaichik’s greatest dream in life is to become a Young Soviet Pioneer.  His father works for the State Security and joining the Pioneers would make Sasha’s father proud and be an important step in following him in becoming a good Communist under Stalin.  The mother having passed away years before, Sasha and his father live in a komunalka, a communal living apartment.

Sasha’s life changes when police show up one night and arrest his father.  Their room is taken over and Sasha is thrown out in the snow.  Turned away by relatives that same night, Sasha looks forward to the next day at school when he will become a Young Soviet Pioneer in the initiation ceremony.

But Sasha’s luck does not improve at school.  While carrying the Soviet banner, he accidentally breaks the nose off of a Stalin statue.  Hiding the misdeed, Sasha’s actions set off a school wide emergency as the administration struggles to pin the blame on someone.

Yelchin does an excellent job capturing the fear, paranoia, and dark humor of the U.S.S.R during Stalin’s reign.  I found particularly compelling the anger and resiliency of Sasha’s classmates.  These children, so beyond their years in their concerns, do everything they can to baffle, in their own small way, Stalin’s system of terror.

An excellent choice for children interested in Soviet history.  I would also recommend to a parent or a teacher trying to show students what a society is like without freedoms and liberty.   A Newberry Honor for 2012.  Ages 9+