“Beyond The Bright Sea” by Lauren Wolk

Image result for beyond the bright seaThe Plot In 5 Sentences Or Less:  When Crow was an infant, she washed ashore onto a tiny island located off of the coast of New England and a man named Osh found her and raised her as his own daughter.  Local rumor held that Crow had come from the leper colony on Penikese Island, but there was never any proof of this.  Now older, Crow has begun to question her origins and wants to know who her biological parents are.  She and Osh visit Penikese and there find the beginnings of a mystery that will bring great wealth but also great danger to their small island.

My Take: I greatly enjoyed Wolk’s novel Wolf Hollow and was excited about Beyond the Bright Sea.  I was impressed by Wolk’s description of  the Elizabeth Islands and I thought that she did an excellent job of situating the reader into the rhythms of Crow and Osh’s life on the ocean.  Wolk makes a good choice of framing the narrative around 3 characters, each with their own rough charm and simple decency.  Some of the mystery turns on events that are a little too neat and coincidental, and I believe that book would have been stronger with a twist along the way.  However, this remains a solid choice for young readers looking for a mystery or a historical fiction.

One Interesting Note About The Author: Lauren Wolk lives on Cape Cod and has visited many of the Elizabeth Islands.

 

“Orphan Island” by Laurel Snyder

Related imageThe Plot In 5 Sentences Or Less:  The green boat comes to the island once a year with a new child and then ferries the eldest child on the island away — thereby obeying the rule that only 9 children may live on the island at a time.  But this year seems different for Jinny because her best friend Deen is leaving, thereby making Jinny the elder and breaking her heart at the same time.  In Deen’s place arrives Ess, an adorable tangle of black curls whose responsibility for care falls to Jinny.  As Jinny bonds with Ess and learns how to raise a child, she begins to question the rules of the island and why the children are even there in the first place.  Jinny soon learns, however, that with curiosity often comes trouble.

My Take:  Children stranded on an island inevitably brings to mind the book Lord of the Flies, but most of the similarities between the two novels end there.  Much like William Golding, Snyder is interested in examining power structures, but her focus is more internal.  The character of Jinny is growing, changing, and coming to new realizations  — this change is more central to the theme than any fighting between the characters.  Orphan Island is therefore in some ways more like Peter Pan or the Chronicles of Narnia than the Lord of the Flies.  It is a book about childhood and the anxieties of it coming to an end.  It is the realization that one can’t stay safe and comfortable forever.  I applaud Snyder for not giving the reader easy answers to complicated questions and for making characters that defy pat generalizations.  At the end of the book, we are not certain whether Jinny’s choices were wise or stupid, selfish or selfless.  This troubling ambiguity makes great reading, so I would happily suggest this book to any mature middle grade reader that is ready to struggle with deeper questions.

One Interesting Note About The Author: According to her website, Laurel Snyder is a terrible gardener and loves black licorice.

The Ruins of Gorlan by John Flanagan

The Plot In Five Sentences Or Less:  Will, raised as a ward of the castle and having never known his parents, faces his destiny on his Choosing Day.  Hoping that he will go to fighting school, Will is surprised when the shadowy figure of Halt requests that Will join his team of Rangers, a stealthy band that polices and keeps watch over the realm.  Will takes to his training well, mastering such Ranger arts as camouflage, stealth, and of knife throwing.  As his skills mature, Will earns the respect of Halt and makes a name for himself by slaying a large wild boar in the forest.  But the a wild boar is nothing compared to the dreaded and evil Kalkara, whom the evil lord Morgarath has sent on a mission to kill the Rangers.

My Take:  I was suitably impressed by the opening shot of this now 12 part series.  Flanagan gets right the balance between character development and delivering a suitable level of excitement for younger readers.  I was expecting that the entire book would be spent on Will’s training and his efforts to please Halt, with the obvious attending disappointments until then end, when, through some personal breakthrough, Will finally earns the respect of his master.  I was pleased that this was not the narrative arc, or at least not the entirety of it, and that, by the final quarter of the book, Flanagan has ushered us to the larger stage where we are meeting the Kalkara of Morgarath.

One Interesting Note About the Author:  Flanagan conceived these books in a series of short stories that he wrote for his son to interest him in reading.

“The Sister’s Grimm: The Fairy-Tale Detectives” by Michael Buckley

The Plot In Five Sentences Or Less:  Daphne and Sabrina have bounced among foster homes for the past few years ever since their parents passed away.  Their latest foster mother is an eccentric old woman calling herself Mrs. Grimm and claiming to be the girls’s grandmother.  She takes the girls to her old house stocked with eccentric items and, in time, strongly hints that the girls are part of an old family tradition of keeping fairy tale characters–known as everafters–in line and out of sight.  The girls are mostly skeptical until the grandmother and her chauffeur are kidnapped by a giant.  It’s up to Daphne and Sabrina to track down their grandmother, solve the mystery of why this giant is terrorizing the town, and live up to their family name of Grimm.

My Take:  This light hearted romp featuring a cast of characters from well known fairy tales and children’s literature is a good choice for children looking for a fun read.  Buckley manages to balance the right amount of realism and zaniness so that even when the book incorporates darker elements, it never takes itself too seriously.

One Interesting Note About the Author:  According to his website, Michael Buckley attempted to be a stand up comedian and lead singer of a punk rock band before going to college.

Leven Thumps and the Gateway to Foo by Obert Skye

 

Leven_Thumps_and_the_Gateway_to_Foo_coverThe Plot (in 5 sentences or less):  Leven Thumps is a 14 year old boy in Oklahoma whose life changes when he meets Clover, a small fantastical furry creature.  Through his time with Clover, Leven finds that he has the power to summon lightning and also to see into the future.  They soon meet a girl named Winter, who is blessed with the ability to change anything into ice, and Geth, a shape shifting being that was once a king.

In time Clover and Geth reveal to them that their powers are to save a magical world named Foo which is being threatened by the evil Sabine.  The four set out to find the doorway to Foo before Sabine and his shadows can find and kill them.

My Take:  This is a YA fantasy that gets the job done.  It is paced quickly enough to keep the plot going without sacrificing character development.  Fans of Harry Potter and of that ilk will appreciate the first in this 5 book series.  Ages 11+

One Interesting Note About the Author:  According to his website, Obert Skye “currently lives indoors and near a thin, winding road.”  Now that IS interesting!

 

 

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

The Capture by Kathryn Lasky

thecaptureThe Plot:  Soren is a barn owlet born in the forest of Tyoto.  Living with his family in the hollow of a fir tree, he has many things to look forward to.  He has just had his “first fur “ceremony, in which he eats his first meal with fur in it, and it will soon be time for his “first bones,” in which he will be expected to regurgitate pellets, just like a healthy adult owl would.   After that he will begin to learn how to fly!

But there are also problems in Soren’s life.  His older brother Kludd is a bully and at times seems to possess an even darker side that goes beyond that.  Soren worries about Kludd’s influence on their younger sister Eglantine.  There are rumors as well of a egg snatchings.  Someone or something has been raiding owl nests and stealing the eggs.  Such a things has never been heard of in the forests of Tyoto before.

 Soren’s life abruptly changes when he falls (or was he pushed by Kludd?) out of the nest one evening.  He is soon snatched up and carried aloft by a powerful owl who takes him to a stony place with deep, narrow canyons.  Hundreds of other young owls are there as well, all of them having been kidnapped from their homes.  He discovers out that this is “St. Aegolius Academy for Orphaned Owls.”   During the first full moon, the owlets are marched together outside.     Soren makes friends with an elf owl named Gylfie and together they discover that the Academy is trying to “moon blink” them, a process in which an owl basks in the moonlight and is made crazy.  The two owls discover other areas of St. Aegolius as well and realize that the Academy has a sinister purpose.  Soren and Gylfie must escape from this place and make it back to their homes to warn the other owls.

Personal Reaction:  I have been wanting to read some of The Guardians of Ga’hoole series for some time and I was not disappointed.  Lasky keeps the story moving along at a brisk pace while managing to create a convincing fantasy world.  I appreciated that Lasky presents a great deal of factual information about owls, including some of the not so appealing topics of regurgitation and excretion.  These bathroom subjects are approached in such a way that the young readers will understand that these are important part of the owl’s lives and not just put in the book for comedic material.

Themes:  desire for power, orphans, bullies, kidnaping, creating new family,  enslavement,  searching for home.

Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli

manicamagee Plot: Jeffrey Magee is a an orphaned boy who blows into the town of Two Mills, Pennsylvania (a fictional place) one afternoon. Within the first day he has already made an impression on the neighborhood. He butts into an ongoing little league game and hits line drives off of ace pitcher John McNab. He strays into Finsterwald’s backyard, a place that no other kid will venture due to the local grinch that lives there. And the Pickwell kids claim that they saw him running on top of the steel rails of the railroad tracks. With all of these crazy stories floating about, people begin calling him Maniac Magee.

But Jeffrey soon hits upon the split reality of Two Mills: the town is divided strictly along racial lines of white and black. Maniac is oblivious to it all. Although being white himself, he openly wanders into the black part of town and remains oblivious to his blunder. He stays with the Beale family on Sycamore street until they begin receiving threats because they are housing a “honky fishbelly.” Maniac knows then that it is time to move on.

He takes up residence in the bison pen at a local zoo, until he makes friends with the local groundskeeper, an elderly man named Grayson. During his weeks with Grayson, Jeffrey listens to his tales about playing minor league ball and he also teaches the old man how to read. When Grayson passes away, Jeffrey again hits the road and eventually ends up back in Two Mills. This time Maniac will examine even more closely the racial strife in the town and take action to ameliorate it.

Personal Reaction: A couple of years ago I tried to listen to the audiobook version of Love Stargirl by Spinelli. I say “tried” because a couple of chapters into it, I found it to be so annoying that I turned it off. It may not have been the writing. It may have been the subject matter or the grating voice of the narrator.

As I listened to the audiobook of Maniac Magee, I thought that I was going to have a similar reaction to this book. I enjoyed the opening when Jeffrey rolls into Two Mills like
a supernatural event, performing heroic acts and getting everyone talking. Midway through, however, during the scenes with Grayson, I felt that Spinelli had lost the momentum of the narrative. I found the interaction between Maniac and the elderly groundskeeper to be cloying, especially when he was teaching him to read. Where was the hook, I wondered, to keep the reader, well, reading?
The book picks up again when Maniac returns to Two Mills and encounters the racial conflict. At this point, older readers will realize that the character of Jeffrey is really not much of a character at all. He is the personification of racial tolerance and color blindness. He is the unearthly hero who can perform great miracles and open people’s hearts. I appreciated Spinelli asking readers to make this leap to study the symbolism surrounding the character of Maniac. For this reason, I can understand why this book is taught in many middle school classrooms and also won the 1991 Newberry Honor Medal.
Themes: racial conflict, heroism/heroic acts, orphan, individual vs. society, community healing.

A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park

Tree Ear is a boy who lives in a small village on the west coast of Korea in the middle of the 12th century.  He spends most of his time scavenging for scraps around local trash heaps and sleeps under a bridge at night.  His friend is Crane Man, an old man with a disabled leg who has taken care of Tree Ear since he was brought to the village years before by a monk.

Tree Ear’s life changes when he begs a local potter named Min to take him on as an assistant to pay off a debt.  His days are then spent in hard manual labor cutting down trees or digging out blocks of clay along the river bank.  Tree Ear one day hopes to learn how to make pottery on a wheel, but Min gruffly refuses to teach him.

When Min decides to show his pottery to the royal emissary in the capital, however, he must rely on Tree Ear to make this perilous journey.

I loved this book and could tell why it won the 2002 Newberry Honor Award.  The different setting truly lent to its appeal.  I found the characters fully human.  I’d recommend this book to anyone looking for a good juvenile historical fiction book.