Thursday, March 26, 2009

Middle-Grade/Teen Fiction Review: Pendragon

Pendragon, by D.J. MacHale, is a fantasy adventure series so compelling that my husband and I are as hooked on it as our 14-year old son, Jamie (who began reading the series when he was 12). I sat down to read the first book several years ago so that I could review the series for Family Fun magazine, and I ended up tearing through the first four books!

Bobby Pendragon is an ordinary 14-year old until his Uncle Press leads him to a secret tunnel that moves them through time and space. Bobby’s life is never the same again as he learns that he and his uncle are Travelers, representatives of Earth who work with Travelers from other territories to fight the evil Saint Dane. Instead of worrying about his next basketball game, Bobby is suddenly responsible for nothing less than the fate of the universe.

Each of the ten Pendragon books (nine so far; the final book in the series will be released on May 12) takes Bobby to a different territory, where he and other Travelers try to thwart Saint Dane’s latest scheme to create chaos and rule the world. I recently finished reading Book 6: The Rivers of Zadaa and Book 7: The Quillan Games, and I can't wait to read the rest of the series.

With fast-paced plots, extraordinary locales, and a touch of humor, these books will keep kids (and adults!) captivated.

BOOK 1: BOXED SET:

BOOK 10:

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Middle-Grade Fiction Review: Waiting For Normal

In Waiting For Normal by Leslie Connor, twelve-year old Addison (Addie) wants nothing more or less than a normal life with a normal family, but that dream seems far away right now. Addie’s father died long ago, and her mother and stepfather have recently split up. Her stepfather, Dwight, got custody of her two little sisters, but Addie ended up with her very distracted and unreliable mother, with little means of support for the two of them. Dwight has given them a trailer to live in in downtown Schenectady and sends them monthly support checks; it’s not ideal, but it’s the best he can do for now.

Despite her scrappy home and reliance on toast dinners, Addie is at heart full of hope and optimism, always trying to see the good in those around her. She makes some new friends, both at school and near her home, and tries to make the best of things.

What she really yearns for, though is normal:

“I just want…normal,” I said.
“What’s normal?” Mommers squinted at me. “Things are always changing. I mean, how does anyone know if they’ve got normal?”
I thought for a second. “I’ve felt close to it before,” I said. “Normal….is when you know what’s gonna happen next. Not exactly what, because probably nobody gets that. But normal is being able to count on certain things. Good things. And it’s having everyone together – just because they belong that way.” I realized I was making a circle with my hands as if I was holding onto a tiny world. “I keep waiting for it to happen to us,” I told Mommers. “But we – we never seem to get all the way to normal.”

Addie is an endearing narrator who tells her story with warmth and humor. Although her life is at times bleak, she always manages to find joy in it and never loses hope for a better tomorrow.

I listened to the audio version of the book and thoroughly enjoyed it. I was a little bothered at first by the slight southern sound to Addie’s voice – after all, she’s supposed to be from my own home state of New York – but I quickly got over that minor point because the young actress does a wonderful job of portraying Addie. Driving in my car down the New Jersey Turnpike, I found myself both laughing out loud and crying real tears. At one point, I was crying so hard, I almost went off the road trying to find the box of Kleenex! Keep it close for this wonderful, ultimately uplifting story.

Audio download also available.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Young Adult Fiction Review: Magic Street

Orson Scott Card is one of my favorite authors. I didn’t think I liked science fiction much until I read his fabulous series that begins with the renowned Ender’s Game, which is also a favorite of my 14-year old son.

Card’s young adult fantasy novel Magic Street is very different from the Ender books but is still a worthwhile read. The central character of this unique urban fantasy is Mack Street, a boy who lives in an affluent African-American suburb of Los Angeles. Mack began his life in a very unusual way: he was found as a newborn in a plastic shopping bag, left in an empty field in the neighborhood where he would eventually grow up.

Another boy in the neighborhood, Ceese (short for Cecil), finds the baby and brings him to his next-door neighbor who is a nurse:

“What is it?” she said. “I got no time right now for – “
Seeing the baby changed her whole attitude. “Please God, let that not be yours.”
“Found it,” said Ceese. “Covered with ants up in that little valley on Cloverdale. Mama said take it to you.”
“Why? Does she think it’s mine?” said Miz Smitcher.
“No, ma’am,” said Ceese.
Miz Smitcher sighed. “Let’s get that baby to the hospital.”
Ceese made as if to hand the baby to her.
She recoiled. “I got to drive, boy! You got a baby seat in your pocket? No? Then you coming along to hold that child.”
Ceese didn’t argue. Seemed like once he picked that baby up, he couldn’t get nobody else to take it no matter what he said or did.

That’s the beginning of a unique bond between Ceese and Mack, who is adopted by Miz Smitcher and babysat each day by Ceese. They grow up like brothers, but when Mack starts to notice that his dreams have a strange sort of magical power, he keeps that to himself. As a young teen, Mack discovers an entryway to a magical world that only he can see, and his explorations lead him to discover things about himself. Ultimately, Mack finds himself at the center of an epic battle between good and evil.

Magic Street, like other Card books, is a suspenseful novel populated by memorable characters, but its urban setting in LA and Shakespeare-inspired fantasy set it apart. Card explains in his acknowledgments that he created this book especially for a friend who complained that there were too few African-American heroes in novels. While Card does create likeable and heroic characters in both Mack and Ceese, his black street-talk dialogue often seems artificial and silly, especially in the setting of a prosperous African-American community filled with professionals and middle to upper-class citizens. Despite this flaw, the book is a clever and compelling fantasy tale; both my teen son and I enjoyed it very much.


Thursday, March 5, 2009

Middle-Grade Fiction Review: Found

Wow. Found, the first book in Margaret Peterson Haddix’s latest new series, The Missing, has it all: a fast-paced plot that pulls you in and doesn’t let go, an intriguing mystery, and realistic characters who you come to care about so much that you wish you could protect them from the dangers they’re facing.

My 5th-grader’s teacher is reading Found out loud to his class, and my 14-year old loved the book, so I decided to see for myself what all the fuss was about. I wasn’t disappointed.

The prologue opens with a strange scene in an airport, as Angela, a new airline employee on her first day on the job, sees an airplane suddenly appear at the gate out of nowhere. No one knows where the plane came from or how it got there, and Angela discovers there are no adults on the plane at all, just 36 babies.

The main action of the novel centers on three kids: 13-year old Jonah, who was adopted; his younger sister, Katherine; and their neighborhood friend, Chip. Jonah gets a mysterious letter in the mail one day that they all agree must be a silly prank, until that evening when Chip comes back over in a panic:

“I got one, too,” Chip said. He was clutching his face now, almost like that kid in the Home Alone movie.
“One what?” Jonah asked.
“One of those letters. About being missing.”
Chip pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket. Jonah could tell that Chip had already folded and unfolded it many times: the creases were beginning to fray. Chip opened it once more, and Jonah could see that it was just like the letter he’d gotten, six typewritten words on an otherwise blank sheet of paper:

YOU ARE ONE OF THE MISSING.

The action moves quickly forward as the three of them try to figure out what the letters mean and where they came from. The more they learn, the less they understand as they encounter FBI agents, more mysterious letters, and people who seem to appear and disappear at will.

Margaret Peterson Haddix is also the author of the popular series, The Shadow Children, though I had never read any of her books before. I ignored all my work this afternoon because I couldn’t bear to put this book down without finding out what happened. How will I ever wait until August when Book 2 is released?

NOTE: Although this book and series are written for middle-grade readers, teens and young adults who like fast-paced suspense novels will enjoy it, too.