Monday, May 5, 2014

The 21 Balloons by William Pene du Bois

When does science become most appealing? One arguable answer could be: when it is told through a story that is half based on verifiable principles, and half on utter, beautiful nonsense. The 21 Balloons, by William Pène du Bois, won the 1948 Newbery Medal with its equal parts of science and absurdity combined in a story about a runaway mathematics teacher, a ballooning adventure, and a castaway saga that one-ups Robinson Crusoe.

          When Professor William Waterman Sherman is discovered floating in the Atlantic Ocean in the midst of wreckage that appears to have once been a platform attached to 20 balloons, the American public is shocked. The professor was last seen sailing out of San Francisco in a house attached to one giant, hot-air balloon, having sworn off teaching obnoxious grade-school boys in favor of a year of leisurely exploration. No one can guess how he ended up in the ocean between Europe and the U.S., and Sherman himself refuses to part his lips on the subject until he can tell his story in front of the Western American Explorer’s Club in his hometown of San Francisco! However, his account upon this occasion is so fantastical as to be almost unbelievable. The erstwhile arithmetic teacher spins a tale that involves disaster over the sea, sharks, unexpected rescue, an unbelievable discovery, an unimaginably large fortune, and the explosion of the mysterious Krakatoa, a volcanic island that hid more than coconuts in its tropic depths.

          In this award-winning book, du Bois adeptly mixes the science of ballooning with a sly wit akin to Roald Dahl. Prepare to be entertained.

Mister Orange by Truus Matti

What is as uniquely amazing as a book that simultaneously explores art, music, immigration, patriotism, staying true to one’s roots, superheros, and the American World War II experience? Truus Matti’s Mister Orange won the 2014 Batchelder Award for best children’s book originally published in a language other than English, and considers how much of what we fight for is tied to our dreams for a better future.

When his older brother Albie leaves to fight in the war, Linus consoles himself with the thought that Mr. Superspeed, Albie’s comic-book creation, will keep his brother safe from the bullets of the front line. There’s not much time to worry, though, since Albie’s departure means many new duties. In order to help keep his family’s grocery store running, Linus takes up the role of delivery boy, charged with shuttling packages from his father’s shop window to the customer’s hands. The most interesting delivery order is made by Mister Orange, an older gentleman who buys a whole crate of oranges every two weeks, loves to play the newest boogie-woogie music, and always smells of paint. Linus grows to enjoy his twice-monthly trip to Mr. Orange’s unique apartment, where the walls are decorated with vibrant, changeable patterns, and where the elderly artist always has time to answer even the most unusual of Linus’s questions.  The war’s reality cannot be ignored however, and one day Linus discovers something about Albie’s circumstances that make him question the importance of curiosity and imagination as well as the benefit of keeping his childhood hero, Mr. Superspeed. It is up to Mr. Orange to help Linus find the value of his dreams for the future, and to encourage him to share those dreams with others.
          It would be interesting to know the inspiration behind Matti’s story, particularly considering the choice of language. Although first written in Dutch, the story is set in 1943 New York City, without much mention of ethnic background. Overall, Mister Orange provides an upbeat, well-worded and unique portrayal of both the American World War II experience, and of the imagined life and character of the lesser-known artist Piet Mondria

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Paperboy by Vince Vawter

Which is more important – what you say or how you say it? Author Vince Vawter addresses this question in his 2014 Newbery Honor book Paperboy. Set in Memphis, 1959, this story offers a unique perspective on segregation and the disability experience from the viewpoint of a very original hero.

          Born with a speech impediment, Victor loves words but has difficulty expressing his thoughts and can’t even say his own name. With the encouragement of his beloved housekeeper Mam, he takes on his best friend Art’s paper route for a summer while Art goes on vacation. At first daunted by the prospect of having to talk with customers, he begins to take an interest in the lives of those he services, especially pretty Mrs. Worthington, whose drinking habits hint at private unhappiness, and Mr. Spiro, who collects books and talks to kids as if they are adults. As the summer progresses, however, Vince realizes that even Mr. Spiro can’t answer all of his questions, especially those raised by a surprising discovery about his birth records and the strange behavior of the neighborhood junkman, Ara T. When a series of thefts exposes Ara T’s suspicious behavior and puts Mam in danger, Victor has to use all of his courage and resources to save them both.

          Vawter’s junior-fiction novel offers an insightful perspective on a lesser-publicized disability, particularly as the circumstances of the story are partly autobiographical. In his ending notes, the author briefly describes his lifelong experience with stuttering and offers resources for those wishing to learn more about speech impediments. The inclusion of many of his personal observations and struggles makes Paperboy a heartfelt account of coping with and thriving despite adversity.

How to Catch a Bogle by Catherine Jinks

Did you think that monsters only hide under beds or in closets? You are so wrong. Catherine Jinks’ How to Catch a Bogle provides a fun and creepy dramatization of a common childhood fear, and features a pint-sized heroine who confronts her circumstances with courage and attitude.

          Tiny Birdie McAdams has the voice of an angel and a job way bigger than she is. Apprenticed to Alfred the Bogler, her task is to lure bogles, or monsters, out of their hiding places in abandoned wells and dark chimneys – without being caught and eaten, of course – so that Alfred can kill them. Sassy and smart, Birdie is right proud of her apprenticeship, although being the bait for a child-eating, nightmarish beast secretly gives her the willies. Monsters aren’t the only threat to boglers, however, as Birdie and her master soon discover. When the clothes of disappeared children begin to appear on the backstreets of London, covered in bogle slime and a mysterious man demands Alfred’s help in unsavory activities, Birdie feels helpless to prevent disaster. It takes new and unlikely friends to show her that even the toughest bogler’s apprentice occasionally needs backup.

          Jinks’ junior fiction novel admirably hits the right balance between creepy atmosphere and wry humor. Both the historical and fantastical elements of Birdie’s world are well imagined and brought to life through vivid descriptions and well-timed character development. The street slang used by Birdie and her cronies is also a nice touch. Read if you enjoy a well-paced story – but be aware that you may never want to look inside a dark closet again.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, by Roald Dahl

Let’s just agree right now that having watched the movie is not the same thing as having read the book. As delightful as the cinematic experience often is – unless, of course, the moviegoer sitting behind you spends the entire film dribbling popcorn down your neck – there will always be some elements of the book that a movie adaption just can’t capture. In the instance of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the uncaptured element is summed up in one title: Whipple-Scrumptious Fudgemallow Delight. How can a two-ish hour film hope to encapsulate the tremendous experience of unbelievable goodies described in Roald Dahl’s classic novel?
          Charlie Bucket’s little house, stuffed to the rafters with relatives, is within shouting distance of the most glorious candy factory in the world. For years the factory has churned out marvelous creations such as ice cream that never melts, chewing gum that never loses its flavor, and of course, delicious chocolate bars like the Nutty Crunch Surprise and the Whipple-Scrumptious Fudgemallow Delight, while refusing entrance to any of the public. Now, however, the mysterious owner Willy Wonka, has hidden five golden tickets inside five bars of chocolate and declared that whoever finds them will be permitted a very special tour of his factory. Charlie’s family is so poor that he knows he has no way of buying any candy in search of the ticket, but a miraculous occurrence lands him a spot in the tour with four other children. What will happen to him inside the factory? What marvels will he see, and how will meeting Mr. Wonka change his life forever?
          Ranging from breathtaking inventiveness to sheer silliness, Dahl fully imagines a fascinating world in which candy reigns supreme. The charismatic and endearingly goofy Mr. Wonka serves as a tour guide for both his fictional companions and all readers, who will be engrossed in the descriptions of the chocolate factory’s workings. The text scampers along with italics and exclamation points galore, which aid the humor of the plot line and characters’ speech. Those who enjoy Charlie’s story should also check out the book’s lesser-known sequel, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Relish by Lucy Knisley

As tasty a read as the myriad of foods it celebrates, Lucy Knisley’s Relish is a treat for many age groups. Recipient of a 2013 Alex Award, an honor conferred on outstanding adult books that appeal to teen audiences, the twenty-something author generously shares her memories of food and life in a wholly entertaining graphic novel.
          Daughter of a chef and a self-proclaimed gourmet, Lucy has grown up loving almost all foods, from salmon en papillote to McDonald french fries. Born in New York, raised in the country near the Catskill Mountains, and educated in Chicago, she considers her life to be one long culinary encounter, which she relates via amusing pictures and wry prose. Whether it’s being attacked by killer geese, picking bugs off mushrooms for a summer job, serving celebrities at catering events or attempting to solve the puzzle of whether a college student can afford to eat anything other than ramen noodles, Lucy describes each experience with a compelling mixture of zest, humor, and practical reflection. Neither advocating poor-quality edibles nor encouraging her readers to swear off donut chains (her advice about procuring the best croissant is to use prepackaged crescent rolls), she infectiously shares her view of food as an important and festive aspect of life.
          As the publishing company did not see fit to include a warning, herewith some advice: Do not read this book on an empty stomach. It will make you ravenously hungry. Knisley, however, shows remarkable foresight by including a simple, delicious-looking recipe in every chapter, making each section of her story doubly delightful.  

Monday, April 28, 2014

A Drowned Maiden's Hair by Laura Amy Schlitz

What would you do to get what you want? Author Laura Amy Schlitz takes a sweet and unique perspective on this question in her debut novel A Drowned Maiden’s Hair, which gets its title from an old folk song.

Orphaned Maud Flynn is neither pretty nor desirable enough to interest foster parents, so she compensates by being talented at mischief-making. She, therefore, is as surprised as anybody when Hyacinth Hawthorne, a visitor to the Barbary Asylum hears Maud singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” while locked in the outhouse for misbehaving and immediately decides to adopt her. Captivated by her new caretaker, Maud vows to be as angelic as possible, and does not even complain when she is bossed around by Hyacinth’s sisters Judith and Victoria and told to stay out of sight in the house’s attic. Soon, she learns that the Hawthorne women are involved in a mysterious moneymaking scheme and need Maud’s help. Expert at creating fake séances, they plan to convince a rich, grieving woman that they can contact her drowned daughter – with Maud acting as the girl’s ghost. As Maud struggles to please the Hawthornes, she becomes increasingly unsure about her future with the sisters. When, she wonders, will she know that her love for them is returned? And what will she do to secure that love?

          Featuring a deliciously creepy setting, A Drowned Maiden’s Hair combines historically sound details of a popular scam of the early 20th century with the excitement of a ghost story. Schlitz incorporates thought-provoking themes regarding the ethicality of lying in order to please another person, as well as the true nature of happiness. The author is especially adept at revealing each character’s motivations to ensure that their actions are always believable. Both haunting and heartwarming, Maud’s tale of loneliness and love is well worth reading.