Book Review

At times a harrowing read, Wintergirls takes us immediately into the mind of Lia, a high school senior, as she learns the news that her former best friend, who suffered from a severe eating disorder, has died alone in a hotel room. Lia herself suffers from the same illness, and this tragic news triggers her to take increasingly dangerous and desperate moves, and soon she thinks she is being haunted/goaded on by her old friend. Anderson deftly takes us into the mind of this girl in the midst of her crisis and mental disorder. The writing is excellent and the story compelling. Anderson’s technique of showing Lia’s internal mental struggles and the things she won’t allow herself to think in strikethrough is particularly effective. The scenes in which Lia’s love of fantasy fiction figures into her delusions of being visited/haunted by her dead friend are another nice touch that give just a taste of urban fantasy to this realistic fiction novel. The story ultimately becomes one of hope, but it is a hard-earned struggle and there is no easy way out for Lia. Highly recommended.

Written by Laurie Halse Anderson
Viking / Speak / Penguin
288 p.
ISBN: 9780142415573
Release Date: March 19, 2009
Paperback: February 23, 2010


Book Review

Every night, after she’s read a couple of chapters of Nancy Drew, Franny closes her eyes and drafts a letter to Chairman Khrushchev, asking him to come to an understanding of things and not blow up America. But she can never get the wording quite right. In fact, she can’t seem to get anything quite right. She can’t duck and cover correctly during the school air raid drills, she can’t stop her eccentric uncle from digging up the front lawn to make a bomb shelter, she can’t figure out the mystery of her college freshman sister’s weeklong disappearance, and she is escalating a cold war with her former best friend Margie, with implications that will proliferate the entire neighborhood.

In Deborah Wiles’ documentary novel, the first of a planned Sixties Trilogy, the great and small dramas of Franny’s life are interwoven with a text-and-image collage of the pop singles, presidential television addresses, children’s books, and photojournalism of the historic moments of 1962. Underlying everything is the doomsday promise that was the Cuban Missile Crisis; Franny’s whole world is just one blinding flash away from total annihilation.

The mash-ups of primary source photos, historical notes, and pop culture ephemera that serve as interludes to the novel’s narrative are by turns clever, informative, ironic, and portentous, and give great context to the story. However, much like last year’s Newbery winner When You Reach Me won readers over as much with its realistic 6th grade social drama as with its time travel mystery, Franny’s day-to-day school and family concerns are just as engaging as the high concept collage aspect of the text.

And speaking of the Newbery, this book is a worthy contender for that prize in 2011. Giving a vivid picture of childhood in early 1960s, yet describing family and social situations still highly applicable to children today, this book is worth the attention of any young person or teacher of young people.

Countdown (The Sixties Trilogy, Book 1)
Written by Deborah Wiles
377 p.
ISBN: 9780545106054
Release Date: May 1, 2010

The Memory Bank

Book Review

“Hope and Honey Scroggins were the closest of sisters, had been right from the start. Truly, they were lucky to love each other so!

“Not so lucky when it came to their parents, though.

“Mr. and Mrs. Scroggins were simply awful people.”

These parents soon prove to be so awful that they make the parents of Matilda seem somewhat decent. So awful that they randomly leave Honey on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, and tell Hope simply to “forget her.” Her little sister Honey was the only good thing in her life, so of course it is impossible to forget her. So, left to herself, Hope does nothing but sleep, and in her dreams she tries to find her sister.

Then one day Hope receives an unusual letter stating that her memory account is woefully out of balance, and soon she is picked up by a repo man of sorts and taken to The Memory Bank, a strange quasi-magical institution where all people’s memories, in the form of glowing physical globules, are catalogued and carefully stored. Hope has not been living and creating memories for herself, and so the head of the bank is greatly concerned. Hope is taken in by people at the bank, and hopes her access to the memory bank will help her find her sister, all while the bank takes measures against a rogue organization that is threatening to destroy memories.

Meanwhile, we learn through parallel, illustrated interludes that Honey has been adopted by a band of laughing children led by a teenage girl who perform “terrorist” activities against the memory bank, such as dumping candy into the memory receptacles with a dump truck.

Much like the illustrations in The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Rob Shepperson’s drawings for Coman’s novel are as essential to the advancement of the plot as the written narrative, making this a truly collaborative work. It is one of several recent titles (along with The Dreamer) that show a growing and welcome trend towards exquisitely illustrated children’s novels.

There are a lot of things to like about this book. The illustrations are fun and generous in their frequency, making this a fast-moving but satisfying read for young readers. There is a surreal, dream-like quality to the book that is appealing, somewhere at the intersection of Roald Dahl and Kate DiCamillo. Unfortunately, like most dreams, it doesn’t seem to quite come together or make complete sense once you are finished with it. Is it an allegory that I haven’t made sense of yet? Is it a fun fantasy? Is it just a random dream? Although appealing, the book ultimately doesn’t deliver the punch that it seems it should, and I think it will leave young readers scratching their heads.

The Memory Bank
Written by Carolyn Coman, Illustrated by Rob Shepperson
Arthur A. Levine / Scholastic
288 p.
ISBN: 9780545210669
Release Date: October 1, 2010

The Dreamer

Book Review

Long before the meteoric rise of Pablo Neruda, Nobel Prize-winning poet and one of the most important literary figures of the 20th century, there was a sensitive and shy young boy in a small town in Southern Chile named Neftali Reyes.  In The Dreamer, Pam Muñoz Ryan gives us the story of how that young boy grew to become the great Latin American poet, succeeding despite or perhaps because of the repression of a hard-willed father who had no regard for his son’s curiosity, creativity and abilities for self-expression.

“On a continent of many songs, in a country shaped like the arm of a tall guitarist, the rain drummed down on the town of Temuco.” From this opening sentence onward, Ryan gives us a narrative of a boy who sees magic and wonder infused in the everyday things of the world.  This is a creative outlook native to so many children, but often squelched by societal, educational, or parental demands of conformity.  One clear message from this book to children is that it is acceptable and desirable to be curious about the world and empathetic to others, and it is valuable to express oneself, even if in some circumstances it requires great bravery.  To this end, the negative portrayal of Neruda’s “blunt father” seems at times extreme to the point of being cartoonish and unbelievable, and yet may be entirely accurate.  Ryan’s writing, while clear and direct, attempts to incorporate a sense of the poetic style of Neruda and other modern Latin American writers, full of pleasant figurative language and surrealistic imagery.

Middle grade readers who possess the curiosity or creative impulse of the young Neftali will find much to enjoy and identify with in this book.  This book would also serve as an excellent classroom read-aloud in association with any unit on creative writing or poetry.  Curiosity, creativity and inquiry are major themes.  Teaching applications are multifarious: potential writing prompts abound, and the text overflows with examples of figures of speech.

The book is beautifully printed in green ink (Neruda drafted his own writings in green ink, calling it “the color of hope”) with many interesting illustrations throughout.  Peter Sís’ clever and whimsical drawings occasionally stray a little too close to cloying cuteness, but their comprehendible surrealism and symbolism are well-suited for the enjoyment and intrigue of the middle grade reader, and more often than not add depth and meaningful counterpoint to the text.

Overall, this is another strong contender for the Newbery Award in 2011, and it would be surprising to this reviewer if it did not obtain at least an Honor status.

The Dreamer
Written by Pam Muñoz Ryan, Illustrated by Peter Sís
384 p.
ISBN: 9780439269704
Release Date: April 1, 2010