Thursday, February 26, 2009

Middle-Grade/Teen Fiction Review: Things Not Seen

“It’s a Tuesday morning in February, and I get up as usual, and I stumble into the bathroom to take a shower in the dark. Which is my school-day method because it’s sort of like an extra ten minutes of sleep.
It’s after the shower. That’s when it happens.
It’s when I turn on the bathroom light and wipe the fog off the mirror to comb my hair. It’s what I see in the mirror. It’s what I don’t see.
I look a second time, and then rub at the mirror again.
I’m not there.
That’s what I’m saying.
I’m. Not. There.”

How can you go wrong with an enticing beginning like that? Andrew Clements’ book, Things Not Seen, starts with this unusual morning for 15-year old Bobby, as he wakes up and discovers he is completely invisible. After a bizarre conversation with his parents about his new condition, Bobby’s family agrees that they’ll have to figure this out on their own. They’re afraid that if they tell anyone or ask for help, Bobby will become the latest sensation and may even be taken away for scientific study.

So, Bobby tries to learn how to get along as an invisible person. His new life is lonely, since he can’t go to school and can’t tell anyone what has happened to him. Then he meets Alicia at the library. She’s blind: the perfect friend for an invisible boy. Bobby trusts Alicia with his secret, and, together, they search for answers as both of them grapple with life as someone who doesn’t fit in.

Andrew Clements is a popular author of kid’s fiction (one of my fifth-grader’s favorite authors), but he usually writes books for elementary ages. This was his first book for older kids and teens. Our whole family – two sons, ages 14 and 11, and my husband and I – listened to it on audio during a recent car trip, and we were so engrossed in Bobby’s story that we brought the CD inside and finished it when we arrived home. 14-year old Jamie said it was one of the best books he’d ever heard/read.

Andrew Clements does here what he does best – presents full, realistic characters in difficult situations – only this time for an older audience with an unusual sci-fi kind of twist and even a bit of romance. Bobby’s predicament might seem improbable, or even impossible, but all good science fiction requires a little suspension of belief. We highly recommend this book – to read or listen to – for ages 10 and up.

(NOTE: Andrew Clements has written two sequels: Things That Are and Things Hoped For, each with some of the same characters from Things Not Seen and an aspect of invisibility. I just borrowed Things That Are from the library, so I’ll let you know what I think!)

(Audio versions are also available for download)

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Middle-Grade Fiction Review: Lionboy

Charlie Ashanti is a normal 11-year old boy, except for one unique talent: he can talk to – and understand – cats. At the start of the Lionboy trilogy, Charlie’s mostly ordinary life is suddenly shattered when his scientist parents are kidnapped.

A whirlwind adventure follows as Charlie travels through Paris, Venice, Africa, and the Caribbean in search of his parents and the powerful forces behind their abduction. Along the way, Charlie becomes friends with a group of lions and an odd assortment of humans who aid him in his quest. Here, he meets and speaks to a lion (at the circus) for the first time:

Without thinking, Charlie came up beside the lion and said, in Cat: "Hello."
The lion turned swiftly to him, his sad expression changed in an instant to amazement and - yes - fear. How could a lion be scared of me? thought Charlie. I'm just a kid. But the lion was scared of him.
"What?" said the lion.
"I said hello," said Charlie.
"I heard you," said the lion. "It's just - you're talking Cat."
"I know," said Charlie.
"Humans don't talk Cat," said the lion.
Charlie had never come across this before. All the cats he knew at home knew him and knew about his peculiar ability. He'd learned not to mention it to human strangers; but he hadn't thought that a cat stranger - a lion stranger - would be just as surprised.
"I'm sorry." said Charlie. "I didn't mean to surprise you. I've always known Cat."

This imaginative and compelling story was created by a 12-year old girl and her mother, writing together under the pen name of Zizou Corder. My husband and I read all three Lionboy books to our sons, when they were 11 and 7, at bedtime. The four of us were riveted by the fast-paced story, memorable characters, and exotic locales. The unique settings featured in the books inspired many trips to the Internet and the atlas, to print out photos of Venice and see where exactly Essaouira is located. We all cheered for Charlie and wished that he and the lions were our friends, too. You don’t want to miss this exciting journey!

Recommended for ages 9 and up; ages 7 and up as read aloud.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Nonfiction Review: Chasing Lincoln's Killer

Celebrate President's Day with this excellent book:

James L. Swanson’s book, Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer, has been at the top of the best-seller lists for a long time, but I hadn’t gotten around to reading it yet. I was thrilled to hear that he’d recently published a young adult version called Chasing Lincoln’s Killer.

“This story is true. All the characters are real and were alive during the great manhunt of April 1865. Their words are authentic and come from original sources: letters, manuscripts, trial transcripts, newspapers, government reports, pamphlets, books, and other documents. What happened in Washington, D.C., that spring, and in the swamps and rivers, forests and fields of Maryland and Virginia during the next twelve days, is far too incredible to have been made up.”

Swanson begins his tale with these words, and his book lives up to them. A true historical account of the assassination of President Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth in 1865, Swanson’s book reads like a fast-paced suspense novel. Although I learned a lot about Lincoln, Booth, and the Civil War as I read this book, it is about as far from a textbook as you can get.

The story begins on March 4, 1865, at President Lincoln’s inaugural address, after he was re-elected President of the United States in the midst of the Civil War. Readers get an inside view into the mind of John Wilkes Booth, as he plots revenge on Lincoln for causing the downfall of his beloved Confederacy. The events leading up to the assassination unfold at a fast pace. It is amazing, from our view of security in the modern world, to think that Booth simply walked into the theater, shot the President of the United States, and escaped moments later.

From then on, the book follows two tracks: Booth and his accomplices as they flee from the city and head south, and the people investigating the murder and following their trail. The story is as exciting and suspenseful as any good thriller. Interspersed among the story are real photos, drawings, and documents from that time.

I was fascinated by this book. I learned a lot, but I also enjoyed a good story along the way. You can’t make this stuff up – sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction.
(This book is recommended for middle-grade readers through adults).

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Middle-Grade Fiction Review: 11 Birthdays

Imagine the movie Groundhog Day from a kid’s perspective. That’s the basic set-up for the warm and witty new novel 11 Birthdays by Wendy Mass.

Amanda is dreading her 11th birthday because she and her best friend, Leo, who shares her birthday, still aren’t speaking to each other. Not only is she miserable without her buddy, but she and Leo have had a joint birthday party every year since they were 1-year olds, so she just knows her solo party will be a bust.

Somehow, Amanda makes it through the awful day, only to wake up the next morning to find that it’s her birthday again. In Groundhog Day, Bill Murray woke each morning to Sonny & Cher on the radio. For Amanda, Spongebob becomes her daily reminder that her nightmare continues. Here’s her reaction the first time she wakes up on her birthday:

I reach out to turn off my alarm, open my eyes, and scream! Someone’s standing in the middle of my room. He’s short and squat, and his arms and legs are waving wildly. It’s too dark to see anything clearly. Safety tips run through my head. Stop drop and roll? That doesn’t seem helpful. Duck and cover? That one’s better. I throw the covers over my head and lie still. After a few heart-pounding minutes, I force myself to peek out from the top of the blanket. With one quick move, I flick on my lamp.

Huh. Okay, so it’s not a person. It’s a Spongebob Squarepants happy birthday balloon with streamers for arms and legs. My parents must have snuck him in while I was sleeping. That’s a heck of a thing to do to someone!
Stuck in this single, horrible day, Amanda finally realizes she needs to fix things with Leo if she ever hopes to reach the age of twelve. Along the way, she and Leo uncover an old family mystery and repair their friendship.

I read this book in one big gulp, over the course of a sick day, and I loved it. The writing is realistic and engaging, the main characters are likable, and the novel is brimming with a wonderful sense of humor.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Teen/YA Fiction: Go Ask Alice

I must be the only the person on earth who was a teen in the 70's and never read Go Ask Alice, the anonymous account of a teen girl who becomes addicted to drugs, but it's true. I recently picked up the audio version of the famous book at the library and listened to it for the first time during several car trips.

I was stunned by the power and emotional impact of this story, as I suppose many people have responded to it since it was first published in 1971. So, I was equally stunned and sorely disappointed to discover that it is now widely assumed to be a work of fiction. I just finished reading a summary of Go Ask Alice on, the go-to place on the web for debunking urban legends. I was crushed to find out that the book is not the real-life diary of a teen, as it is presented.

I do tend to be gullible in these sorts of things, mainly because I'm an optimist and idealist; I just want to believe that people are incapable of deception, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary! I tend to take things at face value.

However, while this particular deception is disappointing to me, it doesn't change my opinion of the book overall. I found much of the "diary" to be quite realistic, even reminiscent of my own high school journals, especially in the way that the narrator vacillated between cheerful optimism and dark despondency. Isn't that the essence of being a teen?

Perhaps the format I chose impacted my experience as well. Maybe the diary entries would have seemed less real if I were reading them rather than listening. The young narrator of the audio book did a great job expressing the highs and lows of the teen's high school life and her shame at her descent into drug addiction. When she talked, in a low monotone, about the horrible things that happened to her while she was high and living on the streets, my heart broke for her, and when she was back with her family and happily trying to put her life together, I cheered for her.

Despite its controversies and deception, Go Ask Alice remains a touching and disturbing portrait of how drug addiction can destroy the life of a smart, sweet young girl. Certainly, even if this account is fiction, the things that happen in the book do indeed happen to real people. I think all teens (and all parents) should read this book. It affected me deeply.