Monday, September 17, 2012

Child of the Mountains - Marilyn Sue Shank

Title: Child of the Mountains
Author: Marilyn Sue Shank
Publisher: Delacorte Press, 2012 (Hardcover)
Length: 249 pages
Genre: Children's Historical Fiction
Started: September 13, 2012
Finished: September 16, 2012

From the inside cover:

Growing up poor in 1953 in the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia doesn't bother Lydia Hawkins. She treasures her tight-knit family. There's her loving Mama, now widowed; her whip-smart brother, BJ, who has cystic fibrosis; and wise old Gran. But everything falls apart after Gran and BJ die and Mama is jailed unjustly. Suddenly Lydia has lost all those dearest to her.

Moving to a coal camp to live with her uncle William and aunt Ethel Mae only makes Lydia feel more alone. She is ridiculed at her new school for her outgrown homemade clothes and the way she talks, and for what the kids believe her mama did. To make matters worse, she discovers that her uncle has been keeping a family secret - about her.

If only Lydia, with her resilient spirit and determination, could find a way to clear her mother's name...

I'm a big fan of historical fiction, especially about topics not often explored in mainstream literature. This caught my eye because it reminded me of a book I read as a child with a similar title. When I saw that it was about a girl growing up poor in Appalachia in the 1950s, I was hooked. I find it's important for my students to read about lifestyles (historical or modern) different from their comfortable middle-class ones in order to realize how good they have it. Thankfully this book has more to its credit than just its subject matter.

The book is narrated by Lydia (aged 11 or 12) writing in her diary recounting the events leading up to her mother being imprisoned. Her father, an unemployed alcoholic, died when she was three and her mother was pregnant with her little brother. BJ is born with cystic fibrosis and the family allows him to be part of a study at a children's hospital in Ohio in order for him to receive medical care that they cannot otherwise afford. Mama, Gran, Lydia, and BJ live in poverty but make ends meet, and even donate homemade presents to their worse-off neighbours at Christmastime. When BJ gets sicker and it's obvious he will not live for much longer, the hospital refuses to release him to spend his last days with his family. After Lydia and Mama break BJ out of the hospital and he passes away, Mama is accused of causing BJ's death and she is put in jail. When Lydia goes to live with her uncle and aunt a few towns over, she feels guilty over her inability to set things right regarding her mother, and to top it off she's encouraged not to speak of the issue due to the shame felt by the family. When she finally tells her understanding teacher what is bothering her, she learns there might just be a way to free her mother.

First off, I'm not usually a fan of dialect (and with the plot taking place in the mountains of West Virginia there's a ton of it), but I either simply didn't mind it here or it was part of what made the book unique and charming. Lydia not only speaks in dialect, she talks about her love of the mountains where she's grown up, and displays her determination and perseverance in all that she does. Not only are the characters endearing and the plot intriguing, it also addresses a lot of issues still pertinent today, such as quality of health care (both physical and mental), alcoholism, poverty and unemployment, education, and affordable legal access and representation.

One of the better children's books I've read this year, mainly due to Lydia's unique voice and strong character, definitely something readers will enjoy.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like the mountain scene with Lydia off to the side. Her body posed as if she's running looks a little awkward, but that might be just me.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Prince Who Fell From The Sky - John Claude Bemis

Title: The Prince Who Fell From The Sky
Author: John Claude Bemis
Publisher: Random House, 2012 (Hardcover)
Length: 258 pages
Genre: Children's Science Fiction, Dystopian Fiction
Started: September 7, 2012
Finished: September 13, 2012

From the inside cover:

In Casseomae's world, the wolves rule the Forest, and the Forest is everywhere. The animals tell stories of the Skinless Ones , whose cities and roads once covered the earth, but the Skinless disappeared long ago.

Casseomae is content to live alone, apart from the other bears in her tribe, until one of the ancients' sky vehicles crashes to the ground, and from it emerges a Skinless One, a child. Rather than turn him over to the wolves, Casseomae chooses to protect the human cub, to find someplace safe for him to live. But where among the animals will a human child be safe? And is Casseomae threatening the security of the Forest and all its tribes by protecting him?

Middle-grade readers who are fans of post-apocalyptic fiction are in for a treat with this inventive and engaging animal story by the author of the Clockwork Dark trilogy.

The premise for this sounded really intriguing so I decided to pick it up. I wasn't sure what to expect since 'animal stories' can be a hit or miss depending on how the author handles it. I've heard this described as a dystopian version of The Jungle Book, which is true, but thankfully it goes beyond that in a good way.

First off, the book is narrated from the point of view of the animals involved, and they can't speak to the boy and vice versa. I love that the author chose to write it this way rather than from the point of view of the boy, or have the boy and the animals magically able to talk to each other. Since having it from the animals' point of view allows for a deeper complexity due to their limited knowledge of humans, there's an incredible amount of world-building that goes on here, which is something you don't see very often in middle-grade books.

I loved all the animal characters, they were surprisingly well-rounded. Casseomae the bear grieves her litters of stillborn cubs and is extremely maternal but also very strong-willed. Dumpster the rat is hilarious and rough around the edges. Pang the dog is honourable and dedicated to serving the Companions (humans). I was a little disappointed we didn't really get to know the boy, we don't even find out his name, but granted this story isn't really about the boy, so it's excusable in this case.

Wonderfully well-written with intricate world-building and amusing characters. Readers who like animal stories that are ready to graduate to something more sophisticated will love this, as would readers that enjoy sci-fi stories with a unique spin.

Thoughts on the cover:
I love the cover art. The colour scheme of purples and yellows/oranges are really appealing, and the illustration is well done. The boy does look a bit older than he's portrayed to be, but that could just be me.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Story of Holly and Ivy - Rumer Godden

Title: The Story of Holly and Ivy
Author: Rumer Godden
Publisher: Macmillan Children's Books, 2005 (Paperback)
Length: 58 pages
Genre: Children's Realistic Fiction
Started: September 5, 2012
Finished: September 5, 2012

From the back cover:

It is Christmas Eve and, for the toys in Mr. Blossom's shop, it is their last chance to be sold. Holly, a small doll dressed especially for Christmas, wishes hard for her own special child. But the day ends and Holly is left in the window.

On Christmas morning a little lost orphan girl finds herself outside the toyshop. Ivy has never had a doll to love, but when she sees Holly, she knows at once that this doll is meant specially for her. And Holly knows that this girl is hers. But Ivy has no money, and the shop is closed...

A friend of mine recommended this as one of the doll stories this children's author is apparently famous for. It was originally written in the 1950s, so the story is very sweet but hasn't exactly aged well in terms of how realistic the plot is.

Ivy is a six-year-old girl in a British orphanage who gets sent to the countryside at Christmastime. Upset that she has no family to spend Christmas with, she gets off at the wrong train station in attempt to find the grandmother she doesn't have. She comes across a toy store with a doll, Holly, in the window that she falls in love with. Combine a childless police officer and his wife, a lost key, and a shop full of talking toys, and you have a sweet little Christmas story that little girls (and I'm sure younger boys) will love. A 7-9 year old reading independently could get through this in one sitting, but reading this to a younger child could take a couple sittings depending on how long their attention span is.

Very sweet and a wonderful old-fashioned Christmas story. Plot hasn't held up over time realistically speaking but younger kids likely won't notice.

Thoughts on the cover:
The illustrations in this edition are spectacular. They're simple black and white pencil drawings but some of them are just stunning, especially close-ups of Holly's face.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Now - Morris Gleitzman

Title: Now (sequel to Once and Then)
Author: Morris Gleitzman
Publisher: Henry Holt and Company, 2012 (Hardcover)
Length: 182 pages
Genre: Children's Realistic Fiction, Historical Fiction
Started: August 31, 2012
Finished: September 2, 2012

From the inside cover:

Felix is a grandfather. He has accomplished much in his life and is widely admired in the community. He has mostly buried the painful memories of his childhood, but they resurface when his granddaughter, Zelda, comes to stay with him. Together, armed only with their gusto and love, they face a cataclysmic event, one that can help them achieve salvation from the past, but also brings the possibility of destruction.

Set in the present day, this is the final book in the series that began with Once and continued with Then. It is...Now.

I fell in love with Once and Then when I first read them because they were Holocaust stories written with an amazing, authentic child voice.

Now is a little different because it takes place 70 years later when Felix has long since moved to Australia from Poland, had a family, and retired from a successful career as a surgeon. His son and daughter-in-law are doctors working in Darfur and their 11-year-old daughter Zelda (named after Felix's friend from Once and Then) is sent to live with Felix while they're gone. Felix is still obviously affected by the trauma from his childhood and Zelda tries her best to help him deal with it. The two are later trapped in their remote area by increasing bushfires (based on Australia's Victorian bushfires in February 2009) and must not only save themselves but also others in town.

Zelda narrates this book as opposed to Felix, so the voice is still childlike (although she seemed a bit younger than eleven at times which threw me off), but the impact of the naive childlike voice isn't quite as profound as in the two previous books because the horrors they're narrating aren't nearly the same. So with that in mind, this book doesn't have quite the same impact as the previous two, but it's still enjoyable. I do feel for Zelda though, she's given a name that is a major trigger for her grandfather (he never refers to her by her actual name), and is living with him trying to understand his behaviours and not to drudge up memories that make him feel bad. That just goes to prove that therapy is a traumatized person's best friend.

Now isn't on the same level with Once and Then due to the change in subject matter, but it's worthwhile because it completes Felix's story and also helps to illustrate that certain horrors continue to haunt people long after the experience.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like the change in covers from the original Australian versions to the American versions (but I'm pretty sure they're all changed to reflect the new look now). The image used in this review is not exactly what my book's cover looked like, the locket on my cover is heart-shaped, the chain is straighter to resemble the barbed-wire tightrope that Felix and later Zelda walk on in the redesigned covers for Once and Then, and the blurb at the top is different.