Jen was right–Kathi Appelt’s True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp is a book that should be read aloud, not read from the page. The cadence of the text drew me in from the first sentence of the audiobook, narrated by Lyle Lovett. It took me awhile to get used to Lovett’s voice, mostly because I’d always imagined a female narrator (my mind must be stuck on Keeper, narrated by Appelt herself). His narration initially sounded too detached for the humorous, warm atmosphere. But after awhile, Lovett won me over. Perhaps it’s because he relished the intrusive narrator moments (“You heard me. The DeSoto.”), and pulled them off so smoothly I barely noticed the intrusion.* I also appreciated the sly, matter-of-fact tone used for the raccoon brothers’ silly antics (“Blinkle,” Bingo’s dewberry guilt, their POUFing near Gertrude).
Speaking of Gertrude, Lovett has a particular talent for sound effects, including the all-important snip-snap-zip-zap! and the Farrow Gang’s ecstatic squeals. As for Coyote Jim’s howl, it was so loud I had to rip the headphones from my ears. Arrroooooooo, indeed.
*For a true test of Lovett’s skills, I suggest asking Charlotte of Charlotte’s Library if she can stomach the intrusive narrator when read by his voice.
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So, I may have cheated in the O’Dell Challenge by reading Bo at Ballard Creek before the other 8 books ahead of it on the list. I’ll save my real review for the right time, but for now I’ll tackle the persistent comparisons between Bo and the Little House books.
It doesn’t seem like a fair contest. After all, Bo has 2 adventurous fathers, eccentric neighbors, NatGeo magazines, lots of friends, and the excitement of a mining camp. Laura Ingalls has preachy parents, a goody-two-shoes sister and really boring Sundays. Still, both books contain episodic stories about a year in the life of a little girl growing up on the frontier. And the pictures offer plenty of parallels. Perhaps illustrator LeUyen Pham had Little House on her mind. Some of them even look like an homage to Garth Williams’ drawings:
Little House in the Big Woods
Little House at Ballard Creek: colder and wilder than the toughest Wisconsin winter.
Laura and Mary with their dolls.
Bo and Grafton with their bears–gifts from the “good-time girls.”
Laura at a dance: finally, a chance to see people outside her immediate family.
Ballard Creek dance: Fourth of July with the neighbors.
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Hello! So, Newbery reactions!
It was a good year for squirrels
Jen: and a good year for Floras!
yes. I haven’t read Flora and the Flamingo
but I could see Ulysses’ Flora attempting to dance with a flamingo
Jen: really? I think she’d be too cynical
Lisa: well, if her mother stuffed her into a tutu…
and there was a pink bird nearby…
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Trust me when I say, don’t read Kathi Appelt’s latest book, The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp. Books like hers deserve to be heard. So do whatever it takes to optimize your experience. Find an elementary school teacher or librarian who does story-time, coerce your parents/child/sibling/spouse/kindly neighbor into reading to you, or listen to the audio recording. But don’t just read it–unless you’re reading it aloud.
True Blue Scouts flows as languidly as a long summer’s day on the porch with a glass of cool lemonade and a chatty relative. Equally whimsical but less melancholy or heart-wrenching than the The Underneath or Keeper, it’s adorably simple, silly, and sweet.
The tale opens with scouts Bingo and J’miah, who monitor Sugar Man Swamp–home of the elusive ivory-billed woodpecker (IBWP), incomparable local canebrake sugar, mouthwatering fried sugar pies, and legendary Sugar Man–from the headquarters of a vintage 1949 DeSoto. When Bingo and J’maih, who are racoons by the way, notice an ominous rumble-rumble-rumble-rumble headed in their direction, they have no choice but to rouse the Sugar Man to protect the swamp. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to them, humans Mr. Sonny Boy Beaucoup and Ms. Jaegar Stitch are scheming to evict twelve-year-old Chap and his mom from their house-cum-cafe (home of the world’s best sugar pies) so they can build an alligator wrestling arena and theme park over the swamp. The only things stopping Sonny–a boatload of cash or proof of the Sugar Man’s existence. And the only thing that will wake the Sugar Man from his slumber? A snip-snap-zip-zap from Gertrude, his serpentine companion, or the aroma of fresh canebrake sugar. (more…)
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Bull Run, by Paul Fleischman, has an ingenious setup: each chapter is a monologue told from the point of view of a different character, 16 in total. There are soldiers and doctors, artists and mothers, children, slaves, Union and Confederate generals. It reminds me of Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!, only more depressing, because with every chapter you know you’re getting closer to the actual battle itself.
It’s amazing how quickly Fleischman manages to convey what’s going on. Each chapter is just two pages long, yet somehow we get a sense of the character’s identity, conflicts, motivations, and the political situation around them. Some of the portraits are archetypes–like the woman who sees multiple family members off to war, or the boy who dreams of glory in battle and manages to tag along as part of the band. But the best characters are full of surprises: the photographer who exploits the soldiers’ fear of death to turn a profit, a black man who “passes” as white so he can join the Union troops, and the newspaper sketch artist who selectively draws certain scenes to maintain morale. My favorite, by far, is the cab driver who had to shuttle D.C. socialites to a grassy area overlooking the battle–because they wanted to eat a fancy picnic while ogling the action through binoculars. Yes, this kind of thing really happened. Bull Run was the first major battle of the war, and civilians on both sides were so sure of an easy victory that they treated it like a sporting match.
Fleischman goes out of his way to include details like that–odd and subtle facts that get left out of the sweeping Civil War narrative I remember learning in school. I had no idea that lots of soldiers tried to desert when their contracts expired, or that thousands died of disease in the camps before the battles began. The novel sometimes felt like great nonfiction in the style of Bomb–teaching history without feeling didactic. I suppose my biggest complaint is that even though each character was unique, 16 is just too many. I would’ve preferred 12 or 14 to cut down on the confusion, especially when some characters get more chapters than others and when their plotlines start to intersect. So, even though the book is quite good on its own, it would be even better to find some friends and stage it as a play.
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It’s the most wonderful time….to roll out our favorite reads of this year! Now we’re primarily a middle grade book blog–that’s our niche. But this year, we thought we’d flip the tables and try something different. Doll Bones and Hero on a Bicycle aside, we’re recommending our favorite YA titles of 2013, and we’re asking for your middle grade recommendations, instead.
Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys–As resourceful, intelligent Josie Moraine plots to leave her messy family situation (her mother’s an aging prostitute) and past behind, Sepetys brings New Orleans, in all its gaudy splendor, to life. We only wish the ending didn’t resolve so abruptly, because Sepetys definitely left us wanting more!
Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein–In this companion novel, Wein wisely avoids writing another Code Name Verity, but the friendships Rose makes in Ravensbrück are just as heart-wrenching and root-worthy. She also shines a light on a part of WWII history we’ve never heard of: the Ravensbrück “rabbits.” Also, Maddie gets some closure, Rose gets a future, and we get some tissues.
Ghost Hawk by Susan Cooper–Cooper explores the events leading up to King Philip’s war through the fictional characters of Little Hawk, a member of the Pokanoket tribe, and John Wakely, a Pilgrim boy. Leaving aside the historical fiction/fantasy debate (and an epilogue we could have done without), we admired the writing, the rich characters and the narrative structure–there’s a surprise halfway through that will mess with your head.
Which books delighted you this past year? Let us know–we’re itching to read some satisfying children’s books over the holiday break. Bonus points if they’re middle grade titles or non-fiction!
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Better to Wish is the first book of Ann M. Martin’s Family Tree series, which includes four books about four girls in successive generations of the same family. It’s an intriguing premise that falls short. For the first third of the book, I was hooked. The story starts in 1930 with Abby Nichols, a young girl living in rural Maine. It moves quickly, with each chapter taking place over a single day of Abby’s life. We first see eight-year old Abby and her sister Rose sneaking out to pick blueberries with a forbidden friend. The next chapter opens months later during Thanksgiving. Pretty soon Abby is ten, then twelve. She gets new siblings, the family moves to a new home, and Abby develops a crush on the boy next door.
While Abby is young, the slice-of-life approach works well. Each snapshot tells us more about the family: Abby, the quiet, budding writer; rebellious Rose; their sad, haunted mother; and Mr. Nichols, a hard worker who lifts the family fortunes while becoming increasingly controlling and abusive. Martin also adds a lot of historical details–including the prevailing attitudes towards women, immigrants and mental illness—without being preachy or judgmental.
But as Abby gets older, the vignettes lose their focus. There are too many threads in Abby’s life, and I wanted more from each day. We get tantalizing glimpses of Abby’s friendship with Orrin, a boy her father has forbidden her to see, but there’s no meaningful trajectory to their friendship since all we see are disjointed moments. There’s also a death that comes out of nowhere and little closure or reflection on Mr. Nichols’ behavior—not even when Abby graduates from high school and finally gains her independence. By the end, I felt like I’d read a book with missing pages. And that disappointing experience means I’ll probably miss out on the rest of the series.
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It’s with a grimmace that I admit I didn’t enjoy Adam Gidwitz’s The Grimm Conclusion, the third installment of the Grimm books, as much as I had expected to. The fairy tales were as outrageous and un-Disneyfied as before. The narrator was even chattier than I’d remembered. And we the readers were frequently warned to put the book down, lest we encounter upcoming unpleasant gruesomeness. Nevertheless, The Grimm Conclusion read like a pale reflection of its predecessors, as if it were told through a glass grimmly.
See what I did there?
After being reminded by the chatty narrator that these ain’t your grandma’s fairy tales, but the “grimmest, Grimmest tale” of them all, we meet twins Jorinda and Joringel, whose mother may have been impregnated with the help of a juniper tree. When their parents prove inadequate (one dies of happiness the day they were born, the other locks herself away out of fear and illogical psychology), Jorinda and Joringel promise to cling to each other for ever and ever, until their step father decapitates Joringel with a trunk lid and tricks Jorinda into thinking his death was her fault.
Although Joringel is eventually restored to himself, their mother’s shoddy advice informs how they make sense of this and future traumas: bury the stone that represents pain under mattresses until you don’t feel it anymore, and stamp out the weed that is anger until it never comes back.
[SPOILERS BELOW] (more…)
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When moving from book medium to play medium, a good adaptation is just as important as good source material. Sadly, this was not the case for Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy. Based on Gary D. Schmidt’s depressing Newbery honor-winning book of the same name and adapted by Cheryl L. West, Emerson Stage’s production more often than not goes through the motions of playing Lizzie Bright without actually capturing the spirit of Lizzie Bright.
As in the book, young Turner Ernest Buckminster the Third, the preacher’s boy, feels like a fish out of water when his family moves against his will from Boston to Phippsburg, Maine. Unlike the book, his family consists of just him and his strict father, a widowed minister, since Turner’s mother was written out of existence. Unable to make friends with any of the Phippsburg boys, to the town and his father’s disapproval, Turner ends up befriending Lizzie Bright, a black girl his age who can throw and hit a baseball like no other. She lives on Malaga Island, just across the bay. Unfortunately, the town leaders see Malaga as an eyesore, especially if their plans to turn Phippsburg into a vacation resort are to move ahead.
Along the way, Turner bleeds all over his starched white shirts, looks into the eye of a whale, and is drafted as punishment into reading poetry and playing hymns for Mrs. Cobb–a crotchety old woman obsessed with documenting her last words. This leads up to a scene that’s as hilarious in person as it is on the page. If only the rest of the book’s nuance was retained as well. (more…)
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I was a big fan of Dead End in Norvelt, and From Norvelt to Nowhere promised more adventure for young Jack Gantos and his off-kilter elderly neighbor, Miss Volker of the arthritic hands and former lover of a mass poisoner. The book even promised a road trip for this zany duo. What could go wrong?
Lots of things, as it turns out. From Norvelt to Nowhere reads like a sad echo of the prequel. The best part of the book actually takes place before the roadtrip. When a new original Norvelter moves back to town, she falls dead on the same night that Jack chooses to dress up as Mr. Spizz (the mass poisoner, now on the run from the law) for Halloween. But Jack thinks the real Mr. Spizz may be back in town, ready to sweep Miss Volker off her feet now that she really is the last original Norvelt resident. After some spooky Halloween antics, doses of Miss Volker’s acerbic wit and an unfortunate accident involving an air raid shelter, Jack is commissioned into accompanying Miss Volker to Eleanor Roosevelt’s funeral.
That’s where the novel fell apart. What should have been Jack and Miss Volker’s Excellent Adventure turns into a heavy-handed (and often confusing) series of monologues on love, hate, history, social justice and fighting our inner demons. There are numerous allusions to Jekyll and Hyde and way too many Moby Dick references (in case you’re curious, Miss Volker is Captain Ahab and she intends to spear Mr. Spizz—with a real spear). While the book is still entertaining, it simply lacked focus. Miss Volker monologues for pages on end while I lost track of where they were and the purpose of their trip (ok, there’s a mystery about who really killed the old Norvelt ladies, but it felt weak). Jack, supposedly the main character, starts to feel like the sidekick—one whose only purpose is to drive and protest feebly when Miss Volker starts to get too outlandish. It felt like a story without a point, like the roadtrip was an excuse for Miss Volker to say everything that she never had time to say in the prequel. And while I would happily read a book of Miss Volker’s speeches, I don’t want them to take over what was supposed to be a well-written and (multiple!) character-driven novel.
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