Monday, April 27, 2015

Middle Grade Review: My Life in Dioramas by Tara Altebrando (ARC)

My Life in Dioramas
by Tara Altebrando
2015. Running Kids Press
9780762456819
In her second middle grade novel, Tara Altebrando introduces Kate Marino, a middle schooler who loves living in her family home, known as Big Red. When she learns that her parents' financial situation is going to require them to sell the house, and that they don't even know where they will be moving, she is devastated. Her sadness deepens when she learns that her dance class will be participating in a competition in June, and she may not be able to participate. Determined to prolong the sale of the house until the competition is over, Kate (with help from her good friend Naveen) attempts to sabotage the real estate agent's hard work by planting disgusting smells and annoying sounds all around the house to scare off potential buyers.

Much like Altebrando's middle grade debut, The Battle of Darcy Lane, this is a gentle read for middle school girls who enjoy themes of friendship and family, and who are most concerned with the emotional ups and downs of everyday life. Readers can easily sympathize with Kate's desire to remain in the home she has always known, and even if they would not go to Kate's lengths to be allowed to do so, they will certainly understand her motivations, and maybe even wish they had Kate's guts. Unlike other middle grade novels of sabotage (e.g. Revenge of the Flower Girls, The Great Greene Heist), this one keeps the pranks on a small scale and therefore seems fairly believable. The fact that Kate eventually gets caught also keeps this story from becoming too far-fetched.

Another strong element of this book is the subtlety of the growing tension between Kate and her best friend, Stella. As she demonstrated in The Battle of Darcy Lane, Altebrando has a great grasp on the politics of middle school friendship, and she works that into this plot in a way that is very true to life. Kate and Stella never have a real out-and-out fight with drama and tears and hurt feelings. Rather, the conflicts between them are woven into the fabric of their interactions with one another, resulting in a mix of moments where they get along fine and moments where they are on totally different wavelengths. This is a much more authentic representation of female friendship than some of the cattier books for this reading level might suggest.

Also wonderful is the way Kate channels her emotions into making dioramas of the rooms in her house. This is a great way to highlight Kate's love for her house in a concrete way and also to help the reader fall in love with the house so that its loss weighs as heavily on the reader as it does on the protagonist. The fact that Kate is able to preserve her memories in the form of dioramas also contributes to the story's overall hopeful outlook on a difficult situation, which is sure to resonate strongly with girls ages 9-13.

Two final notes. I was thrilled, just on a personal level, to learn that this book is set in the Hudson Valley region of New York State. Reading about places like Highland, Poughkeepsie, Rosendale, and New Paltz took me right back to my own childhood growing up in the same area. (I have compiled other middle grade novels set in upstate New York here.)  I was disappointed, though, by the cover, which is very dark and difficult to appreciate at a glance. The lettering of the title and the little greenish lights floating in the air also suggest that the story might be science fiction, rather than contemporary realism, which might draw in an audience that is not ultimately interested in reading the book. I just hope librarians who buy this book will be prepared to give it a great booktalk, as I am sure there are plenty of readers just waiting for a book just like this to come along. (If I were eleven years old, I'd be one of them!)

I received an ARC of My Life in Dioramas from Running Kids Press.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Old School Sunday: The Trumpeter of Krakow by Eric P. Kelly (1928) (Reading Through History Review 17 of 52)

In 1241,  a young trumpeter of Krakow, Poland perished as he upheld his vow to sound the trumpet every hour and succumbed to a Tartar's arrow.  220 years later, in 1461, the trumpet still sounds the Heynal day and night, but with a broken note that imitates how the young trumpeter sounded when the arrow pierced him all those years ago. The new trumpeter, Pan Andrew Charnetski, has come to Krakow to stay with relatives while he waits to deliver a valuable object to the king. When he learns that his relatives have been killed, Pan Andrew and his wife and son, Joseph must conceal their identities. Pan Andrew's role as the night trumpeter is meant to keep him out of harm's way but it is only a matter of time before his enemies catch up to him. Then it is 15-year-old Joseph who must come up with a plan to save his family and the new friends they have made.

This is my last book about the Middle Ages, but it is the first one to feature a functional, traditional nuclear family. Family loyalty and honor is in fact one of the main themes of the book and one of the motivations behind Joseph's actions. The story as a whole is a struggle between good and evil, which favors humility, hard work, and honesty over pride, instant gratification, and deceit. It is also an exciting and dangerous adventure which is nearly impossible to put down once begun. Despite its age (87 years!) this book remains relevant because its themes are timeless and its story line is so compelling.

As an educational tool, this book is also top notch. Because it is written in the third person, the narrator can take time now and then to provide historical context or to explain important political implications and religious beliefs. The story itself provides all the historical information needed to appreciate it, which is hugely helpful and appealing to middle grade readers. This book focuses on a very specific city in a very specific time, which could be a strike against its appeal to the masses, but the exhilarating high-stakes plot makes the history interesting in a way that so few children's books ever manage to accomplish.

The Trumpeter of Krakow provides another perspective on the Middle Ages which balances out all the other England-centric titles available. It touches on topics such as alchemy that others do not discuss, and it gives readers a deeper appreciation for Polish culture. It could not be further from the type of book I typically gravitate toward, but I could not have enjoyed it more. It might be my favorite of the historical fiction books I've read so far this year, and it is definitely among my favorite Newbery books.

The edition I read featured a series of intricate line drawings by Janina Domanska. These are certainly excellent in their own right, but they do fall a bit flat when compared with the original illustrations by Angela Pruszynska, which I was able to see thanks to inter-library loan. The original pictures include three full-color pages, one of which actually includes the music for the Heynal, and many other line drawings which depict the locations mentioned in the story. Certainly, it helps that the illustrator was from Krakow because she could easily draw from real life inspiration. Unfortunately, she tragically disappeared during the Nazi invasion of Poland, and she only illustrated this and two other children's books, both stories of Polish history by Eric P. Kelly:  The Blacksmith of Vilno and The Golden Star of Halich. Knowing this makes me want to especially encourage readers to seek out the original illustrations.

The violence of the prologue scene where the trumpeter dies and the suspense of later scenes where the Charnetskis are in danger of losing their lives make this book most appropriate for middle school or even high school students. Polish history is not frequently high on the list of priority subjects to be taught, but for the chance to use this book alone I would highly recommend finding a way to work it into every curriculum.

I own a copy of The Trumpeter of Krakow.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Every Hero Has a Story: Chapter Book Reading List

In my final list for this year's summer reading theme, I have recommendations for those kids in the transitional phase between easy readers and middle grade novels. Kids who love these books will be in luck, because all but one are part of a series.
  • Agent Amelia: Ghost Diamond by Michael Broad
    Amelia Kidd, a child secret agent, must fight evil and ego-maniacal villains who want to take over the world. 
  • Gloria Rising by Ann Cameron
    When Gloria meets her hero, astronaut Grace Street, at the grocery store, she is thrilled, but when she writes about the experience for a school assignment, she is disappointed to find that her teacher doesn't believe it really happened. 
  • Jake Drake, Bully Buster by Andrew Clements
    Jake Drake is frustrated that no one ever seems to be able to curtail bullying at his school, so he decides to find a way to end it himself. 
  • Mercy Watson to the Rescue by Kate DiCamillo
    When Mr. and Mrs. Watson's bed crashes through their bedroom floor in the middle of the night, they assume their pet pig Mercy is going to alert the authorities, but Mercy's heroic mission is interrupted by her intense love for buttered toast. 
  • The Princess in Black by Shannon Hale
    When monsters attack, Princess Magnolia becomes the Princess in Black, but she must do her best to keep her alter ego secret from the prim and proper Duchess Wigtower. 
  • Superduper Teddy by Johanna Hurwitz
    Teddy is a shy little boy who clings to his superhero cape as a security blanket. As his story unfolds, life experiences slowly bring him out of his shell. 
  • Andy Shane, Hero at Last by Jennifer Richard Jacobson
    Andy Shane wants to be a hero, but he isn't sure how to make that happen until he enters a bike parade and sees something wrong that he can fix. 
  • Zapato Power: Freddie Ramos Takes Off by Jacqueline Jules
    Freddie Ramos's whole life changes when he comes to own a pair of super-fast shoes that give him Zapato power! 
  • Captain Awesome to the Rescue by Stan Kirby
    Eugene McGillicudy, also known as Captain Awesome, uses his superhero alter ego to cope with his move to a new school. 
  • Kung Pow Chicken: Let's Get Cracking! by Cyndi Marko
    When trouble strikes in Fowladelphia, Kung Pow Chicken, a second grade superhero, and his sidekick, Benedict, who is only partially hatched, are on the case.  
  • Roxie and the Hooligans by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
    Roxie Warbler wishes she could be brave like her adventurous Uncle Dangerfoot, but whenever she comes up against Helvetia's Hooligans, she runs scared. When she and the hooligans are stranded on an island together, however, it is Roxie's resourcefulness that saves the entire group. (Note: This is the only book on this list that is not part of a series.) 
  • Calvin Coconut, Hero of Hawaii by Graham Salisbury
    When a tropical storm hits, one of Calvin's friends is swept out to sea, and he must act quickly to save his life. 
  • Jinxed, A Topps League Book by Kurtis Scaletta
    In his job as a bat boy for the Pine City Porcupines, Chad meets his hero, Mike Stammer, who is convinced he is jinxed until Chad finds a way to make him feel confident again. 
  • The Quirks: Welcome to Normal by Erin Soderberg
    Every member of the Quirks family wants their newest town, Normal, to become their permanent home, but if that means having to control their strange magical quirks, which range from invisibility to bending time,  they’re sure it’s just a matter of time before they’ll be forced to move again. 
  • Melvin Beederman, Superhero: The Curse of the Bologna Sandwich by Greg Trine
    Though Melvin Beederman graduated at the top of his class in superhero school, he has some trouble flying and a sensitivity to bologna that keeps him out of delis. He finds himself with a real problem when his superpowers suddenly fade away. 
  • Ellray Jakes, the Dragon Slayer by Sally Warner
    EllRay Jakes doesn’t like bullies, so he is naturally very upset when he learns that his little sister Alfie is being bossed around by a friend at her day care center. While he works on a plan to rescue Alfie from her unhappiness, he must also fight off an accusation that he has been bullying one of his own classmates during recess.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Middle Grade Review: Crispin: The Cross of Lead by Avi (Reading Through History Review 16 of 52)

Closing out the 14th century is 2003 Newbery Medal winner Crispin: The Cross of Lead. Known to most only as "Asta's son," Crispin lives with his mother in a peasant village in 1377 England. When his mother dies, the village steward suddenly turns on Crispin, accusing him of stealing and naming him a "wolf's head" who can be killed by anyone on sight. When the priest who tries to help him escape is murdered, Crispin is alone in the world until he meets Bear, the last man standing in a village wiped out by the plague. Crispin pledges his loyalty to Bear, who teaches him to play music and ultimately helps Crispin uncover the true reason he is so despised.

In this story, Avi narrows his focus to just one main relationship - the growing friendship between Crispin and Bear - and uses it as a vehicle to introduce the reader to details about the time period. Whereas the other medieval characters I have read about so far have been fairly well-off financially, Crispin is a peasant in the feudal system, and because of his poverty, this story is darker than any of the others. The story opens with his mother's burial in a pauper's grave, and things only get worse from there. This is not necessarily a problem, as the violent scenes in the story are never sensationalized, but it does strike me as odd that the author expects the same audience who is supposed to be too naive to figure out that Crispins's parents weren't married to also cope with murder and corpses.

Part of my motivation for doing this reading project this year is that I hope to homeschool my kids when they are of school age, and I need to become more familiar with history and historical fiction to feel like I have a strong head start. If I look at this book from a future Catholic homeschooler's point of view, I do have some problems with it. Bear and John Ball (the only real historical figure to appear in the book) have very relaxed attitudes toward religious faith, especially when compared with Crispin's own devotion to the saints and his disciplined prayer life. While I think it makes sense for characters like Bear to reject the tyranny inflicted upon them by feudal lords in the name of God, it bothers me that no differentiation is made between what Catholicism actually teaches, and the way Catholicism was twisted to suit the desires of greedy men. If I were to use this book in a homeschooling unit about medieval England, I'd want to make sure I shared the appropriate context with my kids first, and that their reading of the book did not create confusion for them about their own Catholic faith.

Crispin: The Cross of Lead is an exciting story, and it is likely to appeal to kids who want to read about adventure and danger, but it's not my favorite. There is not much character development, and often Crispin's behavior seems to change suddenly in service of the plot. While it is easier to read and written in a more contemporary style than Adam of the Road or The Door in the Wall, it lacks the emotional depth and detailed descriptions that bring the time period to life so well in those older titles. Had I read it on its own with nothing to compare it to, I'd probably have liked it more, but knowing what else is available, it would not be my first choice for introducing kids to the Middle Ages.

I borrowed the ebook edition of Crispin: The Cross of Lead from my local public library.
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