Book Review: Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick

WonderstruckWonderstruck by Brian Selznick

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Ben wished the world was organized by the Dewey decimal system. That way you’d be able to find whatever you were looking for, like the meaning of your dream, or your dad.

With The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Selznick smashed open the category of “picture book”, using his fabulous pencil illustrations to tell the story of early cinema in an organic way. In this book, his innovative style is perfect for simultaneously telling two stories.

In 1977 Gunflint Lake, Minnesota, Ben Wilson is feeling lost six months after the death of his mother. He has never met his father, but a chance discovery makes Ben think he might be able to find him.

In 1927 Hoboken, New Jersey, Rose Kincaid is trapped in a lonely world. Her father keeps her cooped up at home, convinced the world is too dangerous for a Deaf girl to venture out alone. Determined Rose does just that, running away with no plans to return.

After an opening illustrated dream sequence, Ben’s story is told in conventional prose, alternating stretches with almost-wordless scenes from Rose’s life. The two tales, originally separated by 50 years and over a thousand miles, intertwine and become a single narrative by the end of the book.

Selznick appends a note on his inspiration and historical liberties taken, plus a bibliography for more information. He has clearly done his research on the various topics woven into Ben’s and Rose’s stories: the history of museums, the cities of Gunflint Lake and Hoboken, and Deaf Culture, as well as details specific to life in 1927.

It is a spectacular book, truly unlike anything else out there, with the possible exception of Hugo Cabret. Which is a bit of a shame, really, as it would be a mistake to come to Wonderstruck thinking, “Oh, yeah, I’ve seen this sort of thing before.” This is even better. Let yourself be amazed.

And, if you happen to find yourself in Queens between September 2011 and January 15, 2012, make sure to catch Wonderstruck in the Panorama: Drawings by Brian Selznick at the Queens Museum of Art. It looks like an exhibition not to be missed.

Book Source: Checked out from my Public Library

View all my reviews

Book Review: The Secret of the Sealed Room by Bailey MacDonald


The Secret of the Sealed Room: A Mystery of Young Ben FranklinThe Secret of the Sealed Room: A Mystery of Young Ben Franklin by Bailey Macdonald

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In church of a Sunday when the parson preaches about the sins and failings of women, I would swear he gazes straight at me with a stern, disapproving look.

Patience Martin knows she is hardly the model of good behavior. But what incentive does she have? After her mother’s death three years ago, her father bound her as a servant to the wealthy Mrs. Worth. Then her father died in the same shipwreck that left Mrs. Worth a widow in the middle of a difficult pregnancy. She has four long years to serve a woman who never has a kind word to say to her. Of course, things are about to get much, much worse. Mrs. Worth is found dead, and her brother-in-law plans to sell Patience off with no concern for her well-being. Patience takes her chance to run away, but soon learns that she is suspected of stealing Mrs. Worth’s money, and there is a reward on her head. With the help of a smart young printer’s apprentice, she just might save herself and bring the murderer to justice.

As in Wicked Will, MacDonald sets the scene with period details.

Patience is a winning heroine – quick-witted and determined, clearly a girl ahead of her time. The young Ben Franklin is charming, depicted with just enough human faults to remind the reader that even such an American legend was once a teenage boy. Filled with humor and nods to historical events, this is a classic locked-room mystery for the younger set.

View all my reviews

Book Review: Amelia Lost by Candace Fleming

When kids come to the library looking for a biography, there are a few usual suspects, and Amelia Earhart is one of them. There is a lot of information about Earhart floating around out there, some of it more legend than truth, as Fleming notes at the opening of this attractive biography. I enjoyed Fleming’s biography of P.T. Barnum, and she brings much the same approach to the famous “aviatrix”.

Amelia LostAmelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart by Candace Fleming

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“We believed we were about to see history in the making — the first woman to fly around the world, but she didn’t come, and she didn’t come.”

Fleming begins her biography of Earhart near the end of the story, joining the crew waiting for her arrival at Howland Island as they realize that the famous pilot is lost. She then jumps back to the beginning, and the chapters of the book move chronologically from Amelia’s birth to her final flight. In between the chapters, though, are brief two- or three-page sections about the progress of the search. This dual narrative maintains a feeling of suspense throughout the book, even though the reader knows the search is ultimately unsuccessful.

Beautifully designed, full of photographs and sidebar notes, with a striking red, black, and gray cover, this biography has plenty of visual appeal for children and adults. Fleming dug through mounds of research (many sources are noted in the back matter) to tease out the truth of Earhart’s life from the legends. She portrays an Amelia Earhart who is daring and inspiring, yes, but also a very real human being. A truly outstanding biography.

View all my reviews

Book Review: The Great Wall of Lucy Wu by Wendy Wan-Long Shang

The Great Wall Of Lucy WuThe Great Wall Of Lucy Wu by Wendy Wan-Long Shang

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Book Source: Checked out from my public library

Who did Regina think she was, telling me how or how not to be Chinese?

Lucy Wu is all set to have the best year of her life. Her older sister, Regina, is going off to college. Not only will Lucy get out of the shadow the Perfect Chinese Daughter, but she will also get their shared bedroom all to herself. She’s looking forward to starting sixth grade and being among the oldest kids in the school, playing basketball, and having a big joint-birthday Halloween bash with her best friend, Madison.

And then, it all falls apart. Her parents announce that Lucy is about to get a new roommate – a great-aunt from China. A new Chinese school is opening in the area, and her parents want her to go on Saturday mornings – when she has always had basketball practice. Nothing is going according to Lucy’s plans.

Shang creates an utterly believable tween in Lucy, blending all the sweetness and prickliness that come with being an eleven-year-old girl. She wants to do the right thing, but sometimes she really wants her way, too. She wants to fit in and have the boy she likes like her back. She doesn’t want to be too different from everyone else. She has been content to fade into the background everywhere but on the basketball court. When a bully makes her a target, her impulse is to hide away. When some of the popular girls spot Yi Po at the mall and make fun of her, Lucy denies being to related to her.

As the weeks pass, and Lucy gets to know Yi Po, she also starts to figure out how to bring together and accept the various parts of her own identity, and how important it is to stand up for herself. Her realistic responses to frustrating situations will have readers cringing and laughing right along with her.

Highly recommended for grades 4-6, this is a stand-out debut novel.

View all my reviews

Book Review: Wheels of Change by Sue Macy

Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom (With a Few Flat Tires Along the Way)Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom by Sue Macy

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Book Source: Checked out from my public library

Macy explores the history of bicycling and women’s rights, and how each affected the other, in this appealing volume. Vintage photographs, newspaper blurbs, and fun facts pepper the pages in the style of a full-color scrapbook. In the first chapter, Macy covers the invention of the bicycle and its rise in popularity, then turns her focus squarely on women cyclists. From public condemnation of the “spectacle” of a woman on a bike to changes in fashion spurred by the need for more bike-friendly clothing to the achievements of famous female cyclists, there is a lot of information packed in these conversational pages. Between chapters, double-page spreads touch on topics like cycling slang, popular songs about cycling from the late 1800s, and the variety of publications centered on cycling. A final spread offers two complementary timelines of milestones in women’s history and cycling history to put events in perspective at a glance. Recommended for ages 10 and up.

View all my reviews

Book Review: No Passengers Beyond This Point by Gennifer Choldenko

No Passengers Beyond This PointNo Passengers Beyond This Point by Gennifer Choldenko

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Book Source: Checked out from my public library

You have to wait for good things to happen – wait and wait and work so hard – but bad things occur out of the blue, like fire alarms triggered in the dead of night, blaring randomly, a shock of sound, a chatter of current from which there is no turning back.

The three Tompkins siblings – dramatic charmer India, level-headed worrier Finn, and peculiarly clever Mouse – are unhappy passengers on a flight bound for Colorado. Back home in California, their mother has just told them that their house is about to be repossessed, and they will be living with their Uncle Red while Mom stays behind to tie up loose ends. India is furious about having to leave her best friend behind. Finn is concerned about how their family will move forward. Mouse is confused by the whole situation, but her invisible friend Bing is always there to reassure her. Even when the plane lands in a place called Falling Bird, where they are welcomed warmly and each given a dream home to live in. It will take all three of them to get back home, but do they all want to go?

This is a weird book, and I mean that in the best possible way. A Phantom Tollbooth kind of way. It starts off like a realistic novel: three (mostly) normal kids are hit with the horrible news that they are about to lose their home. And then it takes a sharp turn into fantasy, while all three kids keep trying to make logical sense of things. The narrative shifts between each siblings’ first-person perspective in alternating chapters, and Choldenko’s creation of three distinct voices is spot-on. (Little Mouse is particularly delightful.) While the time pressure the children face is keenly felt, the quick-paced action is never rushed. There is family drama at the heart of this story, wrapped in a satisfying blend of mystery and fantasy.

View all my reviews

Book Review: Invisible Inkling by Emily Jenkins

Invisible InklingInvisible Inkling by Emily Jenkins

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I imagine airplanes that argue with their pilots, drinks that change the color of your skin, and aliens who study human beings in science labs — all when I’m supposed to be doing something else.

Fourth-grader Hank Wolowitz is the first person to admit he has an “overbusy” imagination. But he knows he isn’t imagining the small, furry, invisible animal that was hiding under the sink in his parents’ Brooklyn ice-cream shop. The animal that he rescued from the neighbor’s dog. The animal that calls itself Inkling, says that it’s an endangered bandapat, and that it is not leaving until it repays the debt it now owes him. Hank can certainly use a friend; his best friend just moved to Iowa City over the summer. As if that weren’t bad enough, Hank quickly becomes the fourth-grade bully’s favorite target. Since Hank can’t get any help from the ambivalent lunchroom aides, his oblivious teacher, or his pacifist parents, Inkling is determined to solve the problem for him.

With a quick pace and an engaging narrator, this sweetly funny book is sure to please. Aside from the invisible bandapat, the story feels utterly realistic without being grim. Kids will find it easy to identify with Hank, who just wants to get through a day without having half his lunch stolen. Harry Bliss’ signature illustrations are the perfect complement to Jenkins’ quirky story. Recommend especially to readers outgrowing Roscoe Riley and Clementine.

Book Source: e-ARC via NetGalley, by request

View all my reviews

Book Review: Firestorm! by Joan Hiatt Harlow

Firestorm!Firestorm! by Joan Hiatt Harlow

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Book Source: Checked out from the public library

The ground in Chicago was always damp, so the city officials had decided to raise the level of the streets. Old buildings and foundations, which couldn’t be lifted, were empty. It wasn’t long before a man named Roger Plant and his wife claimed ownership of the deserted foundations along Wells Street and rented out the vacant cellar rooms to all sorts of criminals and tramps.

When 12-year-old Poppy wakes up coughing in the early hours of September 30th, 1871, all she sees before her is a grim future in Chicago’s “underworld”. Abandoned by her mother years before, she was taken in by Ma Brennan and her “School for Girls” to learn the fine art of picking pockets. But later that day, a chance meeting with the son of a jeweler marks the beginning of some major changes for Poppy.

Justin Butterworth is sick of living in the shadow of his older brother, Charlie, and desperate to prove himself responsible enough to do more in the family jewelry shop than just sweep the floors. Poppy isn’t like any girl he’s ever known, but when she runs into him (literally), it’s the start of a friendship.

Over the next week, both Poppy and Justin deal with challenges, but all the day-to-day matters fade in importance when fire runs through the city.

In alternating chapters, Harlow describes events from Poppy’s and Justin’s point of view. Usually, these accounts overlap, so when the reader reaches the end of one chapter, the beginning of the next chapter jumps back a few hours. This drags out the narrative a bit, especially in the early chapters, when the very different lives of the two characters are revealed; impatient readers may wonder just when the big fire is actually going to start. The drama and suspense of the interwoven stories pulls the reader along, though. A comforting epilogue lets the reader know how things turn out, and an Afterword by the author notes which of the characters are entirely fictional and which are based on historical figures. Recommend to third- to sixth-grade historical fiction fans.

View all my reviews

Book Review: Bird in a Box by Andrea Davis Pinkney

Bird in a BoxBird in a Box by Andrea Davis Pinkney

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Book Source: e-ARC via NetGalley, by request

The only thing folks are talking about is that this will be the fight to end all fights. And nobody seems to care about the tough times we’re in, either. People are putting down their last little bit of money, betting on Joe Louis.

In this moving historical novel, Pinkney introduces three young African-Americans in Depression-era Elmira, New York. Hibernia is a 12-year-old preacher’s daughter with dreams of becoming a famous jazz singer. Otis is trying to keep his memories of his father and mother alive by retelling the riddles his father loved to tell. Willie had dreams of becoming a champion boxer, until his abusive father put an end to them.

The novel opens as Louis is about to take on Braddock in a much-hyped fight for the Heavyweight World Champion title, then jumps back a year to recount how the three main characters’ lives have intertwined. Pinkney presents a coherent, flowing narrative while rotating perspective between three distinct voices. She seamlessly blends real historical figures and events with her fictional characters to create vibrantly realistic scenes. An author’s note provides biographical information about Joe Louis and the members of the author’s own family that she used as models for some characters.

With lively, engaging characters and a skillful evocation of time and place, this is an excellent choice for young readers, even those who might not normally be drawn to historical fiction. Consider introducing de la Peña and Nelson’s A Nation’s Hope: The Story of Boxing Legend Joe Louis to readers interesting in learning more about Louis himself.

View all my reviews