Tales from Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan

Cover of Tales from Outer Suburbia

Captain’s Log:

Module 13

Port of Call:  Tan, S. (2008). Tales from outer suburbia. New York, NY: Arthur A. Levine Books.

First Lines: When I was a kid, there was a big water buffalo living in the vacant lot at the end of our street, the one with the grass no one ever mowed…

Summary: Tales from Outer Suburbia is a collection of short stories and illustrations bound together by a theme of urban mystery. The stories are sometimes wondrous and upbeat, but can also be hauntingly eerie and thought-provoking. The stories are illustrations in a variety of styles, from full-color pages, to pen-and-ink, to eclectic collages and newspaper headlines. Many stories are open-ended, leaving the reader to decide how to interpret the strange occurences taking place. The tone of this book is understated, almost matter-of-fact in its prose, and there is something very detached and artificial in this book that brings to mind the ‘suburbia’ mentioned in the title. You get the impression that the characters in the various stories are surrounded by strange and wonderful things, and yet are incapable of realizing it.

First Impressions: I found the pictures and stories to be lovely. They made me think, and caught my attention, and yet I cannot say that I enjoyed reading this book. Its subdued tone bordered on the creepy, striking too close to home as a commentary on modern society’s flaws (both good and bad). The art reminded me of Chris Van Allsberg’s mysterious black-and-white style.

Suggestions for use: I think this book could be used to encourage creative thinking and writing. A teacher or parent could read a story and then ask the students to come up with their own explanations, or make up a story about what happens next.

Reviews:

Booklist: “Gr. 7-12 /*Starred Review*/ After teaching the graphic format a thing or two about its own potential for elegance with The Arrival (2007), Tan follows up with this array of 15 extraordinary illustrated tales. But here is an achievement in diametric opposition to his silent masterpiece, as Tan combines spare words and weirdly dazzling images—in styles ranging from painting to doodles to collage—to create a unity that holds complexities of emotion seldom found in even the most mature works. The story of a water buffalo who sits in a vacant lot mysteriously pointing children “in the right direction” is whimsical but also ominous. The centerpiece, “Grandpa’s Story,” recalling a ceremonial marriage journey and the unnameable perils faced therein, captures a tone of aching melancholy and longing, but also, ultimately, a sense of deep, deep happiness. And the eerie “Stick Figures” is both a poignant and rather disturbing narrative that plays out in the washed-out daylight of suburban streets where curious, tortured creatures wait at the ends of pathways and behind bus stops. The thoughtful and engaged reader will take from these stories an experience as deep and profound as with anything he or she has ever read. ”

Karp, J. (2008). Tales from outer suburbia. BookList, 105(7), 50.

Publishers Weekly: “/* Starred Review */ The term “suburbia” may conjure visions of vast and generic sameness, but in his hypnotic collection of 15 short stories and meditations, Tan does for the sprawling landscape what he did for the metropolis in The Arrival .Here, the emotional can be manifest physically (in “No Other Country,” a down-on-its-luck family finds literal refuge in a magic “inner courtyard” in their attic) and the familiar is twisted unsettlingly (a reindeer appears annually in “The Nameless Holiday” to take away objects “so loved that their loss will be felt like the snapping of a cord to the heart”). Tan’s mixed-media art draws readers into the strange settings, à la The Mysteries of Harris Burdick . In “Alert but Not Armed,” a double-page spread heightens the ludicrousness of a nation in which every house has a government missile in the yard; they tower over the neighborhood, painted in cheery pastels and used as birdhouses (“If there are families in faraway countries with their own backyard missiles, armed and pointed back at us, we would hope that they too have found a much better use for them,” the story ends). Ideas and imagery both beautiful and disturbing will linger. Ages 12–up.”
Staff. (2008). Tales from outer suburbia. Publishers Weekly, 255(44), 59.
Advertisements

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly

Captain’s Log:

Cover of The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate

Module 10

Port of Call: Kelly, J. (2009). The evolution of calpurnia tate. New York, NY: Henry Holt.

First Lines: By 1899, we had learned to tame the darkness but not the Texas heat. We arose in the dark, hours before sunrise, when there was barely a smudge of indigo along the eastern sky and the rest of the horizon was pure pitch. We lit our kerosene lamps and carried them before us in the dark like our own tiny wavering suns.

Summary: Calpurnia Tate is the only girl in a large, well-to-do Texas family. She has an interest in Nature and forms a friendship with her grandfather whom she discovers to be an avid naturalist and experimenter. Calpurnia wishes to learn more about the sciences but struggles against her parents expectations for her as a young lady coming into puberty at a time when women were expected to stay in the home. This is a story about a girl discovering her identity and desires and her attempts to merge those desires with her existing social responsibilities and roles.

First Impressions: I found Calpurnia to be an engaging and open character, with an inquisitive mind and active imagination. I enjoyed watching her grow throughout the story and wish there was a sequel to continue Calpurnia’s journey to womanhood.

Suggestions for use: This can be seen as an empowering book for girls interested in science, and is also a good read for those wishing for some American historical fiction.

Reviews:

BookList: “Gr. 4-7 /*Starred Review*/ Growing up with six brothers in rural Texas in 1899, 12-year-old Callie realizes that her aversion to needlework and cooking disappoints her mother. Still, she prefers to spend her time exploring the river, observing animals, and keeping notes on what she sees. Callie’s growing interest in nature creates a bond with her previously distant grandfather, an amateur naturalist of some distinction. After they discover an unknown species of vetch, he attempts to have it officially recognized. This process creates a dramatic focus for the novel, though really the main story here is Callie’s gradual self-discovery as revealed in her vivid first-person narrative. By the end, she is equally aware of her growing desire to become a scientist and of societal expectations that make her dream seem nearly impossible. Interwoven with the scientific theme are threads of daily life in a large family—the bonds with siblings, the conversations overheard, the unspoken understandings and misunderstandings—all told with wry humor and a sharp eye for details that bring the characters and the setting to life. The eye-catching jacket art, which silhouettes Callie and images from nature against a yellow background, is true to the period and the story. Many readers will hope for a sequel to this engaging, satisfying first novel.”

Phelan, C. (2009). The evolution of calpurnia tate. BookList, 105(17), 80.

School Library Journal: “/* Starred Review */ Gr 5–8— A charming and inventive story of a child struggling to find her identity at the turn of the 20th century. As the only girl in an uppercrust Texas family of seven children, Calpurnia, 11, is expected to enter young womanhood with all its trappings of tight corsets, cookery, and handiwork. Unlike other girls her age, Callie is most content when observing and collecting scientific specimens with her grandfather. Bemoaning her lack of formal knowledge, he surreptitiously gives her a copy of The Origin of Species and Callie begins her exploration of the scientific method and evolution, eventually happening upon the possible discovery of a new plant species. Callie’s mother, believing that a diet of Darwin, Dickens, and her grandfather’s influence will make Callie dissatisfied with life, sets her on a path of cooking lessons, handiwork improvement, and an eventual debut into society. Callie’s confusion and despair over her changing life will resonate with girls who feel different or are outsiders in their own society. Callie is a charming, inquisitive protagonist; a joyous, bright, and thoughtful creation. The conclusion encompasses bewilderment, excitement, and humor as the dawn of a new century approaches. Several scenes, including a younger brother’s despair over his turkeys intended for the Thanksgiving table and Callie’s heartache over receiving The Science of Housewifery as a Christmas gift, mix gentle humor and pathos to great effect. The book ends with uncertainty over Callie’s future, but there’s no uncertainty over the achievement of Kelly’s debut novel”

Schultz, J. (2009). The evolution of calpurnia tate. School Library Journal, 55(5), 110.

The Big Splash by Jack D. Ferraiolo

 

Cover of The Big Splash

Captain’s Log:

Module 9

Port of Call:  Ferraiolo, J.D. (2008). The big splash. New York, NY: Amulet Books.

First Lines:

Summary: Matt Stevens is a Jr. High private investigator. Back in Ellie (elementary school) he was good friends with now-turned organized crime boss Vinnie Biggs, and Kevin Carling, his former best friend who is now Vinnie’s right hand man. Vinnie has come up with an ingenious way of getting rid of bullies and those who stand in the way of his organization. His goons and assassins ‘take out’ his targets through the judicious use of squirt guns, cat-pee water balloons and, the ultimate weapon, a diaper smeared with chocolate. From that point, the taunting of the student body alone is enough to ruin Vinnie’s victims’ social lives and send them permanently to the ‘Outs’ to live out their remaining school years as social pariahs. Matt refuses to get involved with Vinnie, his moral standards forcing him to stay away from his former friends, but when Vinnie’s best former trigger-girl, Nikki Fingers, is taken ‘out’ by a mystery assassin, Matt gets coerced into taking the case. Written in noir style, The Big Splash is a new take on highschool drama and mystery, with a fair amount of humor thrown in for good measure.

First Impressions: Although I love noir, I wasn’t feeling this book at first. However, after a chapter or two I got into it. I liked when Matt’s relationship with his mother was explored, and that made me take more of an interest in the story. Also, this book feels like the first in a series, and there are certainly bigger questions that deserve to be answered in consecutive books.

Suggestions for use: A great introduction to the noir style, I would use this book to get kids interested in mysteries, or as a recommendation if they want a mystery more closely derived from real life situations. This is an entertaining book, so any middle-schooler looking for a good read would probably enjoy this story. Perhaps this could be a step up from the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series.

Reviews:

Publishers Weekly:

“/* Starred Review */ The seventh-grader version of a Raymond Chandler PI, Matt Stevens coolly navigates the mean streets (okay, the mean hallways) of Franklin Middle School in a first novel with an ingenious premise: junior high noir. Matt’s classmate, the once-bullied Vinny Biggio, commands a whole “organization,” complete with hit men, in this case boys and girls who use loaded squirt guns, stealth attacks and their peers’ predictable responses (choruses of “Jimmy peed his pants!”) to ensure their targets’ permanent and total ostracism. The plot has to do with the spectacular takedown of one Nicole Finnegan, aka Nikki Fingers, the school’s most feared “trigger-girl,” that is, until her recent retirement from Vinny’s operation. Just who ordered the hit on Nikki, and why? Twists and curve balls keep readers guessing; extended jokes like one about a petty thief’s desperate need for cash (“On the surface, Peter was a happy-go-lucky model student, but underneath, he had a dirty little secret: He was a Pixy Stixer”) will keep them laughing. With crisp prose and surprisingly poignant moments, Ferraiolo’s debut entertains on many levels. Ages 10–14.”

Staff. (2008). The big splash. Publishers Weekly, 255(37), 67.

School Library Journal:

 “Gr 6–8— Matt Stevens is a seventh-grade Sam Spade who attends a middle school with an organized crime ring run by Vinny Biggs and his goons. Biggs traffics in forgeries, stolen exams, and candy, and has his competition regularly put in the “Outs” with humiliating water-pistol stains to the pants. A kid in the Outs is outcast for life—so when Nikki Fingers, Biggs’s most-feared former hit woman, is taken down by an unseen assailant, Matt is hired by both her sister, Jenny, and Biggs himself to find the culprit. The result is a punchy, clue- and twist-filled plot that falls somewhere between Bruce Hale’s “Chet Gecko” (Harcourt) and Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War (Knopf, 1974). Ferraiolo cleverly adapts hard-boiled whodunit roles to a slightly cartoonish middle school arena (Joey “the Hyena” is framed for the crime; Katie Kondo is the vigilant hall monitor chief; Jimmy Mac heads the school paper; Sal Becker runs a root-beer version of a dive bar in his toolshed). Matt’s strained relationship with Kevin, a former best friend who’s now working for Biggs, brings depth to his character, as do his crushes on both Jenny and Kevin’s sister. An intriguing personal mystery involving Matt’s father, who disappeared years earlier, remains unsolved by the end of the book, and Matt’s mother has secrets yet to tell. Well paced, funny, and suspenseful, with some real commentary on bullying and mob mentality, this book will have fans eagerly awaiting the next installment in this faux noir detective series.”

Pollard, R. (2008). The big splash. School Library Journal, 54(11), 120.

Published in: on October 25, 2010 at 10:21 am  Comments (1)  
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer

Cover of Life As We Knew It

Captain’s Log:

Module 8

Port of Call: Pfeffer, S.B. (2006). Life as we knew it. New York, NY: Harcourt, Inc.

First Lines: May 7

Lisa is pregnant.

Dad called around 11 o’clock to let us know. Only Mom had already taken Jonny to his baseball practice and of course Matt isn’t home from college yet, so I was alone to get the big news.

Summary: Miranda is a teenage girl living in Pennsylvania. Her life revolves around her friends and social life – her friend Megan is becoming increasingly religiously fundamentalist while her other friend Samantha is falling into a promiscious lifestyle. Miranda also is an avid fan of Brandon Erlich, a local figure skater increasing in fame, and who inspires her to want to ice skate. In the midst of this busy, teenage life, Miranda pays little attention to the news about the asteroid about to hit the moon. Everybody expects the asteroid hit to be a minor occurrance, but instead it knocks the moon into a new orbit and sets off a chain of events that effect the entire world: tidal tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, volcanic ash that creates an early winter and power grid failures send Miranda’s family into survival mode. Living off of canned food and the firewood they were able to gather, Life As We Knew It is a gripping story that makes you think about what could happen if our world was effected by a cataclysmic disaster.

First Impressions: From the moment I read the description of this book I was interested, as this sort of survival/post-apocalyptic sci-fi is one of my favorite genres. I was unable to put this book down and read it in a single day while travelling across the country by airplane. This book made me want to go and stack up on canned goods.

Suggestions for use: This book could prompt great discussion about natural disasters and survival, or as a unit on the effects of the moon or natural events on climate change. Of course, this book was compelling enough that I think many readers will pick it up just for fun.

Reviews:

BookList:

“/*Starred Review*/ A meteor is going to hit the moon, and 16-year-old Miranda, like the rest of her family and neighbors in rural Pennsylvania, intends to watch it from the comfort of a lawn chair in her yard. But the event is not the benign impact predicted. The moon is knocked closer to Earth, setting off a chain of horrific occurrences: tsunamis, earthquakes, and, later, volcanic eruptions that disrupt life across the planet. Written in the form of Mirandas diary, this disquieting and involving story depicts one familys struggle to survive in a world where food, warmth, and well-being disappear in the blink of an eye. As life goes from bad to worse, Miranda struggles to find a way to survive both mentally and physically, discovering strength in her family members and herself. This novel will inevitably be compared to Meg Rosoffs Printz Award Book, How I Live Now (2004). Pfeffer doesn’t write with Rosoff’s startling eloquence, and her setup is not as smooth (Why don’t scientists predict the possibility of this outcome?). But Miranda and her family are much more familiar than Rosoff’s characters, and readers will respond to the authenticity and immediacy of their plight. Each page is filled with events both wearying and terrifying and infused with honest emotions. Pfeffer brings cataclysmic tragedy very close.”

Cooper, I. (2006). Life as we knew it. BookList, 103(1), 127.

School Library Journal:

“Gr 6-8 –Pfeffer tones down the terror, but otherwise crafts a frighteningly plausible account of the local effects of a near-future worldwide catastrophe. The prospect of an asteroid hitting the Moon is just a mildly interesting news item to Pennsylvania teenager Miranda, for whom a date for the prom and the personality changes in her born-again friend, Megan, are more immediate concerns. Her priorities undergo a radical change, however, when that collision shifts the Moon into a closer orbit, causing violent earthquakes, massive tsunamis, millions of deaths, and an upsurge in volcanism. Thanks to frantic preparations by her quick-thinking mother, Miranda’s family is in better shape than many as utilities and public services break down in stages, wild storms bring extremes of temperature, and outbreaks of disease turn the hospital into a dead zone. In Miranda’s day-by-day journal entries, however, Pfeffer keeps nearly all of the death and explicit violence offstage, focusing instead on the stresses of spending months huddled in increasingly confined quarters, watching supplies dwindle, and wondering whether there will be any future to make the effort worthwhile. The author provides a glimmer of hope at the end, but readers will still be left stunned and thoughtful.”

Peters, J. (2006). Life as we knew it. School Library Journal, 52(10), 166.

Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

Cover of Leviathan

Captain’s Log:

Module 8

Port of Call: Westerfeld, S. (2009). Leviathan. New York, NY: Simon Pulse.

First Lines: The Austrian horses glinted in the moonlight, their riders standing tall in the saddle, swords raised. Behind them stood two ranks of diesel-powered walking machines stood ready to fire, cannon aimed over the heads of the cavalry. A zeppelin scouted no-man’s-land at the center of the battlefield, its metal skin sparkling.

Summary: Alek is the son of the Archduke of Austria and is suddenly whisked out of his bed for his own safety when his parents are assassinated. Europe is thrown into turmoil on the brink of the first world war, and Alek must escape and survive until he can find allies to reclaim his birthright. He and his advisors hide from German clankers, giant war machines, while those who want him dead try to hunt him down. In the meantime, in England, Deryn Sharp has inherited her deceased father’s love of airships and decides to sneak into the British Air Service disguised as a boy. During an early training exercise she is separated from her base and is picked up by the British Darwinist ship Leviathan a giant flying whale that houses complex eco-systems all working in harmony as a deadly war airship. Her skills as an airman keep her onboard as a midshipman, and she goes with the Leviathan as it is assigned to a top secret mission to the Ottoman Empire. On the way, they encounter German forces and crash into a glacier near where Alek and his advisors are hiding. Alek makes the choice to try and help the stranded airmen and the two meet and form a friendship despite their differences and the secrets each is trying to hide.

First Impressions: I loved this book from the minute I saw the cover. I thought the alternate history to WWI was cleverly constructed and I am eagerly looking forward to the next book, Behemoth.

Suggestions for use: This book is a great inroduction into sci-fi and steampunk, so I can see using this book to introduce teenagers to these genres. I think this book has greater significance if the reader has some knowledge of WWI. This might even be a great companion story for students studying this period of history.

Reviews:

School Library Journal:

“/* Starred Review */ Gr 7 Up— This is World War I as never seen before. The story begins the same: on June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife are assassinated, triggering a sequence of alliances that plunges the world into war. But that is where the similarity ends. This global conflict is between the Clankers, who put their faith in machines, and the Darwinists, whose technology is based on the development of new species. After the assassination of his parents, Prince Aleksandar’s people turn on him. Accompanied by a small group of loyal servants, the young Clanker flees Austria in a Cyklop Stormwalker, a war machine that walks on two legs. Meanwhile, as Deryn Sharp trains to be an airman with the British Air Service, she prays that no one will discover that she is a girl. She serves on the Leviathan, a massive biological airship that resembles an enormous flying whale and functions as a self-contained ecosystem. When it crashes in Switzerland, the two teens cross paths, and suddenly the line between enemy and ally is no longer clearly defined. The ending leaves plenty of room for a sequel, and that’s a good thing because readers will be begging for more. Enhanced by Thompson’s intricate black-and-white illustrations, Westerfeld’s brilliantly constructed imaginary world will capture readers from the first page. Full of nonstop action, this steampunk adventure is sure to become a classic.”

Campbell, H.M. (2009). Leviathan. School Library Journal, 55(9), 176.

Publishers Weekly:
“/* Starred Review */ Launching a planned four-book series, Westerfeld (the Uglies series) explores an alternate 1914 divided between Darwinists, who advocate advanced biotechnology, and Clankers, masters of retrofuturistic mechanical engineering. Austria-Hungary’s Prince Aleksandar is whisked away into the night by trusted advisers; he soon learns that his parents, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Countess Sophie, have been murdered and that he has been targeted by prowar Germans. Half a continent away, Deryn Sharp successfully passes as a young man to join the British Air Service; her bravery during a catastrophic first flight aboard a genetically enhanced jellyfish (“The creatures’ fishy guts could survive almost any fall, but their human passengers were rarely so lucky”) earns Deryn a post on the living airship Leviathan . The fortunes of war lead Aleksandar and Deryn to the Swiss Alps, where they must cooperate or face destruction at the hands of the Germans. The protagonists’ stories are equally gripping and keep the story moving, and Thompson’s detail-rich panels bring Westerfeld’s unusual creations to life. The author’s fully realized world has an inventive lexicon to match—readers will be eager for the sequels. Ages 12–up. (Oct.)”
Staff. (2009). Leviathan. Publisher’s Weekly, 256(34), 62.

Muchacho by Louanne Johnson

Cover of Muchacho

Captain’s Log: Module 7

Port of Call: Johnson, L. (2009). Muchacho. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.

First Lines: I seen Miss Beecher today at the library checking out a old lady’s book. She had her head tipped down so I couldn’t see her face real good but I knew it was Beecher on account of her hair is the exact same color as a car I stole once. Bronze metallic. Beecher doesn’t look like a regular librarian but at least she didn’t look like she was falling off a cliff the way she did most of the time back when she was trying to be a teacher.

Summary: Eddie Corazon is a Mexican-American living in one of New Mexico’s poor neighborhoods. He grew up surrounded by crime, gang bangers, and racism, and is struggling to even graduate high school. Eddie has a lot of cousins, including his primo Enrique who once shot a man in front of him, but his cousins are also a lifeline, forming a protective gang of their own that keeps them from being forced into a life of drug running. Eddie starts to find purpose in his life when he meets Lupe, an incredibly smart and beautiful girl who thinks he’s interesting, and who opens his eyes to the possibilities he has, if only he could get his life on track. Slowly, Eddie begins to change himself, and to become a man his family, Lupe’s father, and himself can respect.

First Impressions: I was hesitant to get into this book because I assumed it would be depressing. However, the story was much more upbeat and meaningful than I anticipated. Now I think this is a very carefully constructed book with a number of useful messages about shaping your own destiny, no matter the terrible circumstances you find yourself in.

Suggestions for use: Definitely a powerful book for inner-city kids, teenagers in difficult neighborhoods, and very empowering for poor latin-americans.

Reviews:

School Library Journal:

“Gr 9 Up— High school junior Eddie Corazon and his Mexican-American family live in a crime-infested town in New Mexico where kids are often pressed into service as drug runners if found on the streets alone. Eddie has his older cousin to look out for him, and he tells of the day when he was eight, and felt so proud to ride along with Enrique, drinking beer and smoking. But when Enrique stopped the car, knocked on a door, and shot the man who opened it in the face, young Eddie messed his pants, “smelling the stink of hopelessness that hung around my life.” Eddie is now in an alternative high school and brandishing his role as juvenile delinquent until he meets Lupe, a bright girl with dreams of college. Keeping her as his girlfriend is the impetus for change, but poignant memoirs of a caring former teacher and the book The Four Agreements play a major role in Eddie’s transformation into a reflective honor student. In the end, the future appears hopeful for the teen, though his change is a bit too didactic as he writes, “you can open a book and follow the words to some new place.” Sometimes the first-person narrative is disjointed, and the story and characters don’t always ring true. While the content may appeal to reluctant readers, the nonlinear story line will be a challenge. Also, the heavy-handed message could be a turnoff, and the numerous allusions to contemporary literature, while interesting, will be lost on most struggling teen readers.”

McClune, P.N. (2009). Muchacho. School Library Journal, 55(9), 162.

Kirkus:

“An experienced English teacher, prolific writer and speaker, Johnson gives life to a sensitive, contradictory character, Eddie Corazon, a Hispanic teenager—”muchacho”—overcoming the obstacles that thousand of adolescents face as high-school students in the United States. Eddie lives in a diverse and hostile environment. He is challenged every day by peers of different ethnic backgrounds and lifestyles at his alternative school for at-risk students. Some of them envision their future in the streets and are not afraid to end up in jail, but others dream of graduating from high school and attending college. Eddy is crossed by different emotions, but perhaps a book, a teacher and a girl—”Lupe full of grace”—will make a difference and transform one of the most challenging and distressing periods of his life into a new beginning. Eddie’s first-person narration and street language will hold teenagers’ interest. Set in New Mexico, one of the states with the highest drop-out rates among Hispanics, this novel unveils the social pressures and struggles of teens living in inner cities.”

Kirkus Reviews, September 1, 2009, retrieved from NoveList database October 19, 2010

Schooled by Gordon Korman

A yellow schoolbus with rainbow tie-dyed windows is shown sideways over a large peace sign on a yellow cover

Cover of Schooled

Captain’s Log:Module 7

Port of Call: Korman, G. (2007). Schooled. New York, NY: Hyperion Books for Children.

First Lines: I was thirteen the first time I saw a police officer up close. He was arresting me for driving without a license. At the time, I didn’t even know what a license was. I wasn’t too clear on what being arrested meant either.

Summary: Capricorn “Cap” Anderson has been raised in a hippie commune all his life. He is completely unfamiliar with what most of us would consider to be commonplace, “normal life” occurrances. However, when his grandmother, who has been raising him in solitude, has to go to the hospital, Cap is placed in a local high school until she gets better.

Claverage “C Average” High School is a typical midwest school with its fair share of cliques and high school drama. When Cap arrives, it doesn’t take long for the entire school to realize he is very different. As a joke, he is nominated to be class president, and everyone expects him to crash and burn for the entertainment of all. Sure enough, Cap’s strange ideals get him into lots of troublesome situations, such when he thinks checks are free money and spends all the Halloween dance funds on charity. This is a humorous story about high school power struggles and culture clashes as Cap struggles to understand his place in the modern world.

First Impressions: This story has an entertaining pretense, and so I found it quite easy to get drawn into this book. This story is definitely aimed at middle school students, and the characters are not particularly complex, but their motives and ambitions are carefully constructed which makes the character interactions mesh well. I finished this book quickly and thought it was an interesting and fun read.

Suggestions for use: This is a great book about being true to yourself and dealing with social challenges in high school. While this book can seem intimidating (high school can be scary!) I think Cap is a character kids can learn from. Cap undergoes difficult times, but he never doubts himself and doesn’t let what others think or say change his ideals. I suggest this book for anyone who has had to deal with bullying in school, or has had trouble fitting into a new situation.

Reviews:

BookList:

“Gr. 6-9 /*Starred Review*/ Homeschooled on an isolated “alternate farm commune” that has dwindled since the 1960s to 2 members, 13-year-old Cap has always lived with his grandmother, Rain. When she is hospitalized, Cap is taken in by a social worker and sent—like a lamb to slaughter—to middle school. Smart and capable, innocent and inexperienced (he learned to drive on the farm, but he has never watched television), long-haired Cap soon becomes the butt of pranks. He reacts in unexpected ways and, in the end, elevates those around him to higher ground. From chapter to chapter, the first-person narrative shifts among certain characters: Cap, a social worker (who takes him into her home), her daughter (who resents his presence there), an A-list bully, a Z-list victim, a popular girl, the school principal, and a football player (who unintentionally decks Cap twice in one day). Korman capably manages the shifting points of view of characters who begin by scorning or resenting Cap and end up on his side. From the eye-catching jacket art to the scene in which Cap says good-bye to his 1,100 fellow students, individually and by name, this rewarding novel features an engaging main character and some memorable moments of comedy, tenderness, and reflection. Pair this with Jerry Spinelli’s 2000 Stargirl (the sequel is reviewed in this issue) for a discussion of the stifling effects of conformity within school culture or just read it for the fun of it.”

Phelan, C. (2007). Starred review of schooled by gordon korman. BookList, 103(22), 71.

School Library Journal:

“Gr 6–9— Capricorn, 13, lives with his hippie grandmother on a farm commune. He’s never been to school, never watched TV, and doesn’t even own a phone. When Rain falls out of a tree while picking plums and is sent to rehab for several weeks, Cap stays with a social worker and is sent to the local junior high school. There he is introduced to iPods, cell phones, spit balls, and harassment. Cap, with his long frizzy hair, hemp shoes, and serene ignorance of everything most of the kids care about, is the dweebiest of the dweebs, and it’s the custom at this school to elect such a kid to be eighth-grade class president (which offers extra humiliation opportunities). The story is told from multiple points of view, adding depth to even the most unsympathetic characters. Korman’s humor is a mix of edgy and silly, the plot moves along at a steady pace, and the accessible and smooth writing style brings all the elements together to make a satisfying whole. The plot is not long on plausibility, but maybe that’s not important in this case. Will Cap’s ingrained peacefulness and sense of self win out in the end? Will it matter that he’s entrusted with writing checks to help pay for the eighth-grade dance, even though he’s not clear on the concept of what a check is? Readers will stay tuned to the last page, and Korman’s many fans won’t be disappointed.”

Persson, L. (2007). Review of schooled by gordon korman. School Library Journal, 53(8), 118.

The White Darkness by Geraldine McCaughrean

Captain’s Log: Module 4 

Port of Call: McCaughrean, G. (2005). The white darkness. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers. 

First Lines: I have been in love with Titus Oates for quite a while now – which is ridiculous, since he’s been dead for ninety years. But look at it this way. In ninety years I’ll be dead too, and then the age difference won’t matter. 

Cover of The White Darkness

Summary:  Fourteen year old Symmone has been obsessed with Antarctica for a long time, and she knows just about everything there is to know about that continent and the famous explorers who walked and died on its icy surface. One of those explorers lives in her head, Titus Oates, who she confides in. She also has a mother, and a smart-crazy Uncle Victor who knows a lot about everything. Victor takes Sym and her mother on a trip to France that he won, but when Sym’s mother loses her passport she has to stay behind and then Victor asks Sym if she’d like to take a trip to Antarctica instead. Thrilled, she agrees, and so they go to Antarctica where, not too surprisingly, it is revealed that Victor (and some acquaintances who have since appeared) have plans to do more than just look at penguins and see where Captain Scott died. What begins then is a story of adventure, self-discovery and survival across the frozen wild. A journey which tests everything Symmone has within her, her relationship with her Uncle, and with Titus. 

First Impressions: This book sucked me in almost immediately. I loved Sym’s ‘imaginary friend’ Titus who really is more of an imaginary boyfriend. I loved her passion for the antarctic and that she was so painfully shy around others. And once the story really got going, I could not put it down. This is a powerful book and it kept me on the edge of my seat the entire time. 

Suggestions for use: Recommend this book to teenagers looking for an adventure, to shy students, to girls, and to anyone who is interested in Antarctica. 

Reviews:

“Fourteen-year-old Symone is obsessed with Antarctic exploration. Ever since the death of her father, she has read every book and watched every movie she can find about Antarctica. She is particularly enamored with Capt. Lawrence “Titus” Oates, one of the explorers lost in the doomed Scott expedition. Titus is her companion and confidante, an imaginary friend who fills in for her grieving family and distant friends.

Outside of Titus, the only person to take an interest in Sym’s life is her Uncle Victor, a family friend who has cared for the family since her father’s death. Uncle Victor feeds Sym’s interest in Antarctica and arranges for a trip to the frozen continent. There, Sym must face the White Darkness, a phenomena of the polar summer where the sun never truly sets and the only indication of night is white, unmarred by shadow.

Sym identifies with the purity, isolation and silence of the white continent. She sees herself as particularly suited to a place that others see as dead:

“God sketched Antarctica, then erased most of it again, in the hope a better idea would strike Him.” Sym observes, “At the center is a blank whiteness where the planet isn’t finished. It’s the address for Nowhere…it mesmerized me. The idea of it took me in thrall. It was so empty, so blank, so clean, so dead. Surely, if I was ever to set foot down there, even I might finally exist. Surely, in this Continent of Nothingness, anything — anyone — had to be hugely alive by comparison!”

Sym does not know that she is a pawn in a larger conspiracy, subject to the fanatical beliefs of one man. Uncle Victor is obsessed with his own theories about discovery and becomes unhinged. He is less concerned with their ability to survive than in securing his place in history. Nasty secrets start to emerge as they travel across the ice. Sym must choose between trusting her uncle and listening to the inner voice she has always regarded as imaginary.

THE WHITE DARKINESS is told entirely from Sym’s point of view, offering her wry observations of the other travelers and sharing her expertise on the subject of the Arctic. Author Geraldine McCaughrean’s biggest challenge is convincing the reader that a smart girl like Sym would be taken in by the suspicious circumstances of her trip with Uncle Victor. McCaughrean succeeds by invoking other polar explorers, many of whom might be regarded as madmen, making discovery at the expense of their own lives.

The juxtaposition of Sym’s adventure next to the Scott expedition — which McCaughrean wisely summarizes in an appendix at the end of the book — asks if death is too high a price to pay for discovery. The irony of the Scott expedition was that, as they chose to push on to discover the South Pole knowing they were unlikely to return, another explorer, Roald Almundsen, already had beaten them to the Pole by two weeks and lived to tell the tale. Had the Scott expedition survived, they would not have been the first to reach the Pole. They found more notoriety through death than they would have in life.

The Arctic regions are ideal for asking the big questions about ethics and morality because one’s decisions, which might be regarded as opinions in ordinary life, hinge on life or death in such a harsh environment. Many 19th century writers were fascinated with the Arctic as a place representing the unexplored regions of the human psyche. In FRANKENSTEIN Mary Shelley sets the final showdown between creator and monster on the polar ice. Henry David Thoreau wrote about the Arctic explorers of his time in WALDEN saying, “…explore your own higher latitudes…there are continents and seas in the moral world, to which every man is an isthmus or inlet, yet unexplored by him, but that it is easier to sail many thousand miles through cold, storm and cannibals…than it is to explore the private sea, the Atlantic and Pacific of one’s being alone.”

THE WHITE DARKNESS manages to ask some of these big questions without compromising plot or pace. It is a book filled with action, mystery and the slightest touch of the supernatural. Its strange story will be appreciated by readers interested in survival tales and the shadow side of human nature.”

Wood, S. (2005) Teenreads.com review of The White Darkness. Retrieved September 9th, 2010 from http://www.teenreads.com/reviews/0060890355.asp.

Shark VS. Train by Chris Barton and Tom Lichtenheld

Captain’s Log: Module 5

Port of Call: Barton, Chris, & Lichtenheld, Tom. (2010). Shark vs. train. New York, NY: Hachette Book Group.

A shark and a train face each other in a display of bravado

Shark VS. Train cover

First Lines:  “SHARK VS. TRAIN Who will win?

 Well, that depends on if they’re…

in the ocean… 

or on railroad tracks.

If they’re on a seesaw…” 

Summary: Two little boys are playing and each picks up a different toy. Naturally, they then have to decide whose toy is best, in this case, shark vs. train. The ensuing competitions are all entertaining and ridiculous, illustrated cleverly and embellished with frequent humourous quips from the shark and train involved. In the end, the boys are called to lunch, and the competition is put on hold. (Until  fate pits shark vs. train against each other once more!) 

First Impressions: When I saw the title of this book on my booklist, I immediately started snickering. The title is funny, and reminds me of ‘CRAB BATTLE’ or ‘LOBSTER VS. MAGNET’ comedy on the internet. The title is an instant hook that makes you wonder ‘what the heck could be inside that book?’ and ‘who wins?’. 

Suggestions for use:  If there is a lesson to be learned from this story, it might be that each individual (be they shark or train) has scenarios in which they excel and scenarios in which they will fail, but there is a balance of each. I would use this story for its entertainment value – it’s a very cute rendition of the way children play and compete together – and it’s very funny and creative. I also think this book would be a good way to teach a lesson about healthy competition. In Shark VS. Train both shark and train take turns ‘winning’ the different scenarios.  This book can also teach us to laugh at our failures, and see the humor in them without getting too discouraged to go on and try something new.

The train successfully toasts the marshmallows over its smokestack, but the shark has drenched his with seawater

Roasting marshmallows...

 Reviews: 

From the Washington Post: “Also not to be missed is Lichtenheld’s visually clever take on the power of play in Chris Barton’s “Shark vs. Train.” Two lively young lads excavate the toy box. One grabs a shark (“GRRRRR”), the other a train (“CHUGRRR-CHUG”), and each instantly disappears into his chosen persona. Who wins the ensuing battles depends entirely on who chooses the game. Riding in a hot air balloon? Train’s weight sends him plunging earthward (“AAAiieee!”). Roasting marshmallows? Shark’s drippy fins put out the fire (“drat!”). And if detente and lunch are synonymous, well, that’s what kids (and happy endings) are all about.” Kristi Jemtegaard 

 Jemtegaard, K. (2010) Washington Post review of Shark VS. Train. Retrieved September 4th, 2010 from http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/05/04/AR2010050404661.html

 From the San Francisco Review: “Literature, sports, politics… they all have their great rivalries, ones where competition stirs the spirit of the masses and drives the contenders to greater heights than ever. And to the pantheon of truly epic rivalries, Chris Barton proudly introduces two new worthy combatants in Shark Vs. Train

 As shark and train do battle in pie-eating contests, card games, and physical and intellectual challenges of all kinds, they learn each other’s strengths and weaknesses, even coming to question where the rivalry came from in the first place. Tom Lichtenheld’s illustrations are marvelously simple, offering funny little background details for the sharp-eyed reader while never detracting from the main imagery. 

Shark has smashed all the bowling pins

It depends on whether they're bowling...

 I could choose to see all kinds of context behind those words and images–a battle between the makings of man and the forces of nature, technology matching wits with the best evolution has to offer–but, come on, it’s a kid’s book. Just sit back and enjoy the spectacle. 

 Shark Vs. Train is the best struggle to come out of nowhere since “Monkey vs. Robot.” I just couldn’t bring myself to pick a side.” – Glenn Dallas  

 Dallas, G. (2010) San Francisco Book Review of Shark VS. Train. Retrieved September 4th, 2010 from http://www.sanfranciscobookreview.com/childrens/shark-vs-train/.

The Snowman by Raymond Briggs

Captain’s Log: Module 2

Port of Call: Briggs, R. (1978). The Snowman. New York, NY: Random House, Inc..

First Lines: n/a

Cover of The Snowman

Summary: This is a beautifully illustrated story told entirely in pictures. Drawn in what looks like colored pencil, each page is filled with panels of varying sizes that tell the story of a young boy and his snowman. Beginning with him waking up and discovering it’s snowing, the boy runs outside and builds a snowman. He dresses it, and when he goes to sleep, he can’t stop thinking about it. He gets up to go check on his snowman, who tips his hat very courteously. Greetings exchanged, the boy invites his snowman inside, and proceeds to give him a tour of the house and all the novelties inside that a snowman would never have seen before. The snowman then returns the favor, taking the boy by the hand and leaping into the sky to fly over the world until morning comes when they both return and the boy goes back to bed. When he wakes up the next morning, he runs outside to see the snowman again, only to discover that he has melted.

More than the story, the best part of this picture book is the illustrations. Some pages have 12 small panels, while others are full page spreads. It’s always easy to tell what’s going on in each picture, and the book reads smoothly and quickly. I think this book would be a great bedtime story, with its theme of adventures while you sleep. I also love that a child who can’t read will fully be able to enjoy this book. Finally, it’s a great wintertime story, and I bet children will want to make a snowman after finishing it!

First Impressions: I did not know that this book had to words, so the first couple of pages were amusing and surprising. I thought the comic book-style illustration strips were fun, and I flew through the book very quickly.

Suggestions for use: This is definitely a winter story, so reading it around that time of year – first snowfall – would be a great use. Also, this is somewhat a story about imaginary friends and dreams, so reading it to children can stimulate their imaginations or help them understand a dream they themselves had.

Reviews:

The boy and his snowman take off into the night sky

“Who needs words to tell a story? In Raymond Briggs’s charming tale, told with 175 softly hued, artfully composed frames, a little boy makes friends with a snowman. He wakes up on a snowy day, tells his mother he’s going outside, then begins a flurry of snowman-building. That night, he can’t sleep, so he opens the front door and lo! the snowman has come to life. The amiable yet frosty fellow enjoys his tour of the boy’s cozy home; he admires the cat, but is disturbed by the fire. The boy shows him other wonders–the TV and a lamp and running water. Predictably perhaps, he is disturbed by the stove, but likes ice cubes quite a bit. Soon it is the snowman’s turn to introduce the boy to his wintry world. They join hands, rise up into the blizzardy air–presumably over Russia and into the Middle East–and then safely back to home sweet home. The boy pops into bed before his parents get up… but when he wakes up the next morning he races outside only to find his new buddy’s melted remains, scattered with a few forlorn lumps of coal. Since the book is wordless, you can make up any ending you want… like “Then, in a puff of pink smoke, the snowman recomposed himself and went to live in the boy’s garage freezer.” Or you could just resign yourself to a peaceful “And that was that.” Raymond Briggs’s The Snowman won the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, and this wintertime classic continues to win the hearts of kids every year. (Preschool and older)” Karin Snelson

Snelson, K. (2001) Goodreads.com review of The Snowman. Retrieved September 6, 2010 from http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/489972.The_Snowman