The Plot In 5 Sentences Or Less: Twin sisters Elodee and Naomi are moving with their mom and dad to a new place called Eventown. While the girls are ambivalent about leaving their old house and changing schools, they soon find that Eventown is an amazing place. The weather is always perfect, the residents are inevitably cheerful, and school has never been more enjoyable. Eldoee, however, soon begins to sense that something is off, that no risks are ever taken, and nothing much seems to change. As she becomes more acquainted with Eventown, she decides that the price people pay to live there is too high for her family.
My Take: I felt that this book worked well on a metaphoric level, so long as the reader does not think too much into it. Haydu introduces some elements of magical realism into the narrative at certain points and the reader will need to accept these to enjoy the book. The author asks that we not examine too critically such plot devices as the the cause of the collective psychological fog which embraces Eventown. When I accept that this is not a book based strictly in realism, I can appreciate that the story does a pretty decent job of exploring the themes of how families deal with change and grief, of how the drive for safety forces people to sublimate other emotional needs, and how deeper meaning derives from the messiness of life. Astute readers will notice clear parallels to Lois Lowry’s The Giver. While I’m not crazy about the plot mechanics behind the book, I would recommend Eventown to young people looking for a more serious read.
One Interesting Note About The Author: According to the bio on her website, Corey lives in Brooklyn with her family and “a wide variety of cheese.”
The Plot In 5 Sentences Or Less: Josh has had his imaginary friend Big Brother since kindergarten. They stayed close and played together until mom lost patience and forced Josh to perform a burial ceremony for Big Brother in the backyard. He hasn’t seen Big Brother since then, but now, entering 5th grade at a new school, Josh’s imaginary friend has returned. At the school a boy named Lucas has noticed Josh and also the strange shadow that follows him, even on cloudy days. Lucas will play an important role as Josh grapples with his new life in 5th grade and the return of Big Brother.
My Take: The strength of this book is how is takes the inner lives of young people seriously. When Josh was younger, Big Brother was mostly a playmate with whom to build LEGO creations. Now as Josh is entering 5th grade, Big Brother serves as that voice to push him out to football games, to go on bike rides with friends, and into the general social scene. Clearly this imaginary friend serves partly as a vehicle for Josh’s growing psyche that is waking up to the world at large. Without revealing any spoilers, Lucas’s imaginary friend serves more as a conduit for the grief and shame from an event many years prior. Nickerson should be given credit for finding a way to explore the anxieties of young people without making it too overwrought or artificial. I found the author’s presentation of the imaginary friends convincing and I never found myself bothered by this narrative device. Nickerson’s well crafted book asks the reader to consider and respect the complex inner lives of young people.
One Interesting Note About The Author: According to her website, Sara works part time in a library (yaaay!) and advises that one of the best steps to becoming a writer is to be a reader first.
The Plot In Five Sentences Or Less: Ethan and his family are moving from Boston to a small town in coastal Georgia, seeking a new start after a traumatic experience involving Ethan and his best friend Kacey. As Ethan learns to adjust to his new settings and to try to make peace with the past, he makes a new friend in Coralee, a lively girl who helps Ethan settle into his new life. But being friends with Coralee also brings its own complications, some that remind him of his painful experience with Kacey. As Ethan and Coralee’s friendship deepens, they discover that the past has a way of resurfacing in painful ways.
My Take: This was an excellent read and I can understand it’s inclusion on a lot of mock Newberry lists this year. Ethan’s pain is convincing and as readers we are pulling for him to find some way to resolve his grief and find solace in his new relationships. Standish does employ some well worn tropes (the mean girl, the bully, etc.) but none of that should bother younger readers. I definitely recommend this to anyone looking for good realistic fiction about trying to make peace with the past.
One Interesting Note About The Author: According to her website, when Ali Standish was young, she and her mother would play a story game. Ali would give her three things (like blueberries, a panda bear, and a snowy forest, for example) and her mother would be challenged to create a story out of it.
The Plot In Five Sentences Or Less: Annabelle is a 12 year old girl living on a farm in rural Pennsylvania in the autumn of 1943. Betty is a new girl at school who jumps Annabelle on her way home one afternoon in the deep recess of Wolf Hollow, a low, dark place that runs between the school and Annabelle’s farm. Betty threatens to beat her with a stick and hurt her younger brothers if she tells anyone. The one witness to this cruelty is Toby, a local homeless man with a mysterious past who wanders the local woods. The tension culminates is a violent incident that turns the town against Toby and makes Annabelle realizes that she is the only person who can protect him.
My Take: This was a book that gripped me from the opening pages and then expanded into a conversation about larger themes. I appreciated that author Lauren Wolk takes no time in introducing the character of Betty Glengarry who immediately provides a source of danger and conflict. She’s a wonderful antagonist that fills the narrative with a tension that makes you want to continue reading. Later on, as we get to know the character of Toby, we are asked to make sense of a more complicated character: a man who is obviously troubled, perhaps dangerous, but also show signs of warmth and kindness. When we learn the source of Toby’s demons, we are hoping that the community will show wisdom and patience in how it treats with him. This is a wonderful book that will encourage readers to ask questions about the homeless, the mentally ill, PTSD, and the ambiguous consequences of deception. I can certainly understand why Wolf Hollow won a Newberry Honor earlier this year.
One Interesting Note About The Author: Lauren Wolk has a new book out entitled Beyond The Bright Sea that is already creating some Newberry chatter for 2018.
The Plot In Five Sentences Or Less: Jake Semple is a problem child who has been kicked out of more public schools than he can count. In desperation, his grandfather enrolls him in the Creative Academy run by the Applewhite family, a group of artistic eccentrics that run a school unlike any other. In the beginning, Jake finds much to dislike about the place, especially E. D. Applewhite, a girl about his age who, unlike her family, enjoys order and structure. When Randolph, the father of the clan, casts Jake in a role in a local version of “The Sound of Music, the young misfit finds that he takes quite well to acting and singing. While Jake blossoms, E.D. finds herself increasingly unappreciated by her own family.
My Take: I appreciated this book because it turned out much differently than I had imagined. Of course, I knew that Jake would eventually settle in with the Applewhite family, but I imagined that the plot would contain a great deal of bad, perhaps borderline violent, behavior on Jake’s part that would induce a crisis in the family. I was expecting something closer to the Great Gilly Hopkins. I much enjoyed that, as the novel progressed, Tolan subtly shifted the focus from Jake to other characters. This made for a much more enjoyable read about the role and power of artistic ventures to bring people together.
One Interesting Note About the Author: According to her website, Stephanie Tolan is “also well known as an advocate for extremely bright children. She co-authored the award-winning nonfiction book, Guiding the Gifted Child, and has written many articles about the challenges gifted ‘asynchronous’ children and adults face as they find a way to fit into their world.”
Jennifer L. and Matthew Holm continue the amusing tone set in their Babymouse graphic novels with their new series Squish. Last week I read the first two installments to my 5 year old daughter.
Plot: Squish is a young amoeba who lives in a pond floating with other microorganisms including paramecium and planaria. But life in the pond is not easy and Squish is plagued with troubles familiar to any human child in elementary school. In the first book, Squish must face down the school bully Lynnwood, also an amoeba, who wants to eat his obnoxiously ebullient friend Peggy, a paramecium. In the second book, Squish is starting a new school year and finds that he has made it into the cool crowd with the Algae, the “coolest microorganisms in the pond.” But Squish soon finds out that being with the popular kids comes with a price that is too high for him to pay.
Personal Reaction: These are fun, clever reads. I love the artifice of using the microscopic world of a pond as an allegory for the trials of elementary school. Lynnwood is the scariest amoeba in school because he readily, and quite literally, eats and digests other microorganisms. The Algae are the coolest kids because they produce oxygen. As an adult, I found it entertaining to reconsider the life of an amoeba, something that I had not thought about since 9th grade biology class. Kids will enjoy the comic book spoof humor and the problems that relate to this age group.
Themes: following your conscience, bullying, standing up for your friends, father-son relationship, the effects of the inner life of the mind on the outer world, fitting in with social groups, the shifting nature of friendships under pressure.
Squish: Super Amoeba 94 pages 2011 Random House; Squish: Brave New Pond 90 pages, 2011 Random House.