Tag Archives: middle grade

Palace of Stone by Shannon Hale

palace of stonePalace of Stone is the sequel to the Newbery Medal-winning Princess Academy. I liked Princess Academy and appreciated how Hale played with our expectations of what was going to happen, but it wasn’t one I completely and utterly loved. I’ve also found that Hale’s sequels tend to be less impressive for me than her first books. All of that is to say why it took me so long to read a book by an author who I admire and generally enjoy.

As it happens, Palace of Stone is nearly a standalone. Events from the first book are referenced, and it certainly helps to have read Princess Academy, but the events are distinct enough that it could be read on its own.

Miri and her friends from the Princess Academy travel to Asland, to the flatlands where Britta is engaged to Prince Steffan. But they step into a world that they do not understand, where the nobles take and the Shoeless whisper against them. Miri and the other Eskelians must decide where their allegiances, both personal and political, lie.

The personal side of the story is the part I appreciated the most. Miri struggles to find her place in Asland, but her loyalty to her home and her friends remains central to her character. That her difficulties are reflected in a romantic tangle between Timon, a young man who has aligned himself with the Shoeless and their cause, and Peder, her old friend from Mount Eskel, is actually not something that bothered me too much. Maybe because I was never in any real doubt about what choice she would ultimately make.

I had a more mixed reaction to the political side. The situation is fairly clearly based in some measure on the French revolution. The abuses by the nobles against the Shoeless are shown clearly, and Miri has a lot of sympathy for them, as an outsider herself. On the other hand, Miri’s best friend is engaged to the Prince. That tension drives most of the book.

Unfortunately, at least in my opinion, both the depiction of the different groups and the solution are a little too easy. I know it’s a middle grade novel, and I appreciate that Hale is willing to take on the subject, but I wanted the end result to be a bit messier, to feel less emphatic and determined. (I will also admit that Frances Hardinge has given me perhaps ridiculously high standards when it comes to potrayals of revolution in middle grade books.)

So in the end, I’m glad I read this one, but it’s not my favorite of Hale’s books, nor do I think it’s quite successful in what it sets out to do.

Book source: public library
Book information: 2012, Bloomsbury; middle grade

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May and June 2014 reading list

Books I’ve already talked about
The Story of Owen by E.K. Johnston
Destroyer by C.J. Cherryh
The Wolf Hunt by Gillian Bradshaw
Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge
Sun-kissed by Laura Florand
Conservation of Shadows by Yoon Ha Lee
Clair-de-Lune by Cassandra Golds
The Wall and the Wing by Laura Ruby
The Great Greene Heist by Varian Johnson
The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison
My Life Next Door by Huntley Fitzpatrick
Torn Away by Jennifer Brown
Pretender by C.J.Cherryh
A Creature of Moonlight by Rebecca Hahn
The Grand Plan to Fix Everything by Uma Kirshnaswami
Sister Mine by Nalo Hopkinson
Pointe by Brandy Colbert
A Bride’s Story, vol 2 by Kaoru Mori
Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear
Tin Star by Cecil Castellucci
Flygirl by Sherri Smith
My Neighbor Totoro
Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes
Melusine by Sarah Monette
Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong by Prudence Shen and Faith Erin Hicks

Other books
Blood Royal by Eric Jager: Non-fiction account of the murder and aftermath of Louis of Orleans. It’s an interesting book, engagingly written, and Jager manages to make his points without hammering them home too often. It’s also a slightly depressing story; justice was never really done, and the man who pursued it the most lost a lot because of it.

Team Human by Justine Larbalestier and Sarah Rees Brennan: I enjoyed my re-read of this a LOT, and yet I can’t help feeling that it’s fundamentally the first half of a story, that it needed the unwritten second book to really round it out. As it is, Mel is only just beginning to change, and I can’t quite see where that journey will take her. I know that things happen, and I do very much enjoy what we do have. Especially Kit.

Cleopatra’s Heir by Gillian Bradshaw: Bradshaw takes a what-if–what if Cleopatra’s son had survived the Roman invasion of Egypt–and weaves a very compelling story from it. The sense of a young man who has been used to complete privilege and who must now find his way in the world isn’t a new one, but Bradshaw treats it deftly, with both affection and enough distance to be convincing.

Hunting Eichmann by Neal Bascomb: I read the YA version of this last year and I wanted to see if the adult version presented a more complex version of events. It did and it didn’t–I certainly understood more of what was happening, but that’s simply because it’s a longer book with more information. For me, the most powerful moment is still Gideon Hausner’s spine-tingling speech at Eichmann’s trial.

Hild by Nicola Griffiths: Hild is a much more fascinating and complex book than I can convey here. I may have to come back to it, because I keep musing about a particular aspect. But for now, I’ll just say that it provides a marvelous counterpoint to certain fantasy sub-genres, and does so in a way that doesn’t refute so much as stand outside a certain viewpoint. I loved the first three-quarters unreservedly; the last quarter didn’t quite have the same weight for me, although I wound up still liking the book a great deal. There’s so much more I want to say, but I’ll just leave it at this: if pseudo-medieval fantasy epics always strike you as lacking specificity and reality, this is a book you’ll like.

Sekret by Lindsay Smith: For a book about psychic KGB spies, I found this one a bit tedious. Smith has done her research, but there were a few awkward moments that bounced me out of the narrative (as when Yulia mentions that Masha means Maria, a fact she would certainly know). I wonder if this would have worked better for me if it hadn’t been first person, if we had a little more narrative distance from Yulia’s perspective. Still, it’s overall fairly enjoyable.

Die For Love by Elizabeth Peters: I normally like Elizabeth Peters, but this one came across as less “loving spoof on romance readers and writers” and more “caricature of romance readers and writers.” Compared to, say, Diana Wynne Jones’s Deep Secret, which lovingly and accurately sends up scifi conventions, this one seemed a bit petty and unkind.

Prisoner of Night and Fog by Anne Blankman: I wasn’t quite sure how I would like this one when I started reading, but I ended up liking it a lot. Gretchen came across to me as a young woman very much in her elders’ shadows–both her father, her brother, and her uncle Dolf–and her journey read as believable to me. It did happen very quickly, and I wished there had been a way to slow that down a bit, but overall I found it an interesting and engrossing book.

The Islands of Chaldea by Diana Wynne Jones and Ursula Jones: Last Diana Wynne Jones book ever, I am so sad. I did like it, which I had worried I wouldn’t; I’m not terribly fond of Earwig. This felt like a return to classic Jones in a lot of ways, and while I wish she had been able to finish it, I am happy with what we got. Did anyone spot the join? I wasn’t quite sure where it came in.

Delancey by Molly Wizenberg: Perhaps because it’s a bit more focused, I enjoyed Delancey more than Wizenberg’s first book. While I did occasionally mutter about getting the point already, it is one that shows how we can have a changing relationship even to things we love, and have to re-find our way to them.

Swift by R.J. Anderson: The last in Anderson’s Knife series. I’ve really enjoyed these books, and I’m so sad they’re not being published over here. Swift seems especially complex and interesting. And I loved that a particular character quotes from Richard III–it fits so well with how {spoiler} is portrayed, as well as being a nice reference.

Curse of the Team Spirit by John Allison: I had read this before, when it was published on the Bad Machinery website, but it was so fun to see the little detectives in their infancy! And while it’s one of the weirder mysteries, it wasn’t at all annoying, which sometimes things are when you revisit them.

The China Garden by Liz Berry: My main reaction to this one was to feel a bit dated. It came out in 1994, when I was seven, but it feels very old-fashioned, in the romance and the attitudes about the world and environmentalism especially. It’s an extremely atmospheric read, but I didn’t find myself really liking it, or the characters very much. Not sure if the fault lies in me or the book–I suspect me as I probably would have loved it in middle school.

Render Unto Caesar by Gillian Bradshaw: I liked this one perhaps a little less than most Bradshaw books; it lacks some of the clear plotting that distinguishes the others, I think. But the setting and characters are, as always, compelling, and she remains practically unequaled in her ability to paint a picture of the ancient world.

The Bride’s Story, vol. 1 by Kaoru Mori
Lulu and the Mysterious Mission by Judith Viorst
Saga, vol 2 by Brian Vaughan and Fiona Staples
The Woken Gods by Gwenda Bond
Blackwood by Gwenda Bond
Forget You by Jennifer Echols
The Geography of You and Me by Jennifer E Smith

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The Great Greene Heist by Varian Johnson

greatgreene This is in some ways a pretty easy book to talk up to people. Look at that cover. Do you think it looks awesome? A middle school heist book with a diverse cast sound like something you’d enjoy? There you go.

Personally, I do love a good heist story. Ocean’s Eleven, The Italian Job, Ally Carter’s Heist Society books–they all satisfy that part of me that likes a fast-paced story with some derring-do and slightly criminal activity. The Great Greene Heist is a fun example of the genre. Johnson clearly knows his stuff: snappy dialogue, main character who leads an unlikely team, betrayal, revenge, and a little bit of romance. He scales the normal heist story down so it fits in a middle school setting, but he never talks down to his audience. He expects them to follow the dialogue, to get the references.

And then there’s the setting. I started flailing on Twitter last night because no one had mentioned that The Great Greene Heist is set in Columbus, Ohio, where I lived from September 1993 to June 2006. Maplewood is a fictional school, but Easton Town Center, where Gaby goes with her aunt, and the Whetstone branch of the Columbus Metropolitan Library are not. (I loved the Whetstone branch because they had a little flower garden.) I am always happy when books are set in the Midwest, since it’s one of the less-valued areas of the country, even today seen as boring and full of farms. The reality of the Midwest is so much more interesting and complex than that and I love seeing authors choosing to show that in their books.

Johnson also chose to create an extremely diverse cast, and to consciously push back against stereotypes in several different ways. I actually prefer the second cover the book was given, because it shows more accurately what the story looks like, and because it makes it clear that Jackson is the main character but not the only character. The characters in the book are racially and ethnically diverse. They are also all firmly middle class; Jackson’s parents are professionals, and his mother is a professor at Ohio State. We don’t see many books written from this perspective, and it’s great to see it here.

At the same time, the characters also encounter casual racism, especially from Ms. Appleton, one of the school secretaries. Here’s the clearest quote, but it is echoed several other times in the book: “Jackson looked at his skinny brown hands. He never quite knew what Ms. Appleton meant when she said ‘boys like you.’ He hoped she meant something like ‘boys named Jackson’ or ‘boys who are tall,’ but he suspected her generalizations implied something else.” I mean, can’t you just hear someone saying that? I know I can. It’s not a violent racism, but rather the assumption that brown boys will always be in trouble, that they’ll never get anywhere. And by middle school, kids will most definitely have encountered this attitude from someone. They’ll get it.

But diversity of race is not the only kind we see here. Megan is a blonde cheerleader, the punchline of innumerable jokes, except that she’s also very smart and talented with computers (and speaks Klingon). Gaby plays basketball and it’s clear that she–and the rest of the girls’ basketball team–is much better than any of the boys playing (when she’s playing Jackson she is relieved because at least she doesn’t have to hold back). All of the main characters are shown in multi-faceted, complex ways.

All of this adds up to something really interesting–a mixture of the excitement of the heist plot, and this detailed realism that keeps the story on an everyday level. Normally, heist stories take place against the backdrop of a huge city: New York, Paris, London. It’s part of their glamor. But Johnson sets his in Columbus, gives us a cast that accurately depicts the diversity of our world, gives them a goal that fits into their concerns. These are not teenage spies or jewel thieves; their goal is to get the right person elected as Student Council President. As much as I love the good old-fashioned heist story, this is exactly right. It gives the kids it was written for a chance to see themselves, a chance to feel understood and valued.

In case it wasn’t clear, I also loved reading it myself. It was just plain fun. I’d love to see a sequel or two (or three!) and I’m so glad the Great Green Challenge gave it a boost to my radar.

Book source: bought
Book information: 2014, Arthur Levine; middle grade

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Recent Reading: Short stories, romance, and middle grade

sun kissedSun-kissed by Laura Florand: A new short novel from Florand. This one is a bit different in that it 1) takes place in America and 2) focuses on the older generation, Mack Corey and Anne Winters. I really enjoyed the way Florand explores the different characters, who are more mature and self-confident than their children and their children’s peers in some ways, and yet still very vulnerable in others. I did miss the French setting a bit, but the sea-side is a lovely alternative. I loved the way Mack sees his daughters and sons-in-law; it was great to see some of the other characters from the Chocolat series through his eyes. All in all, this was a lovely endcap to Florand’s earlier stories (though if there are more in the future, I won’t be sad!)

conservation of shadowsConservation of Shadows by Yoon Ha Lee: A collection of sff short stories. Lee is Korean-American, and based several of the stories on incidents from Korean history. I found that the sensibility underlying the stories to be clear and beautiful; I can’t speak to how and what has been informed by her heritage, but there’s certainly an awareness of non-western based cultures that is refreshing. I loved the worlds Lee creates, and her characters–often caught between two duties or two loyalties. This is one of the most cohesive anthologies I can remember reading, which I greatly appreciated–while I love short stories, I often feel that collections lack coherence. If I have a complaint, it’s that occasionally the endings felt less forceful than I wanted them to be; not rushed, exactly, but compressed in a way that didn’t quite give me the follow-through I wanted. I don’t know if the fault is in the stories, or in me, but this happened often enough for me to notice it.

clair de luneClair-de-Lune by Cassandra Golds: A middle-grade book, which falls somewhere between fantasy and magical realism (the tone reminds me a bit of The Tale of Despereaux). I liked the characters and writing a lot, but felt some vague unease about the tidiness of the ending and an occasional hammering-home of points. In general, I think this is one I would have absolutely loved a few years ago; it’s probably a good one for the quieter, dreamy young girls.

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Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge

Cuckoo-Song-Frances-HardingeFrances Hardinge is undoubtedly one of my favorite writers and has the page to prove it. Every time I read one of her books, I know it will be a wonderful experience. Part of that is the originality of the stories she writes–I have a hard time coming up with readalikes for her books because each of them is so unique.

So, when I heard that she had a new book coming out this year (UK only, I bought it through Book Depository), I was naturally very excited. I pre-ordered it sight unseen because, well, new Frances Hardinge!

I am happy to report that Cuckoo Song more than lived up to my expectations and is, in fact, at the top of my Favorite Frances Hardinge Books list, jostling Lost Conspiracy/Gullstruck Island for first. It’s a wonderful, eerie story, with a lot to say about identity and family. Fresh, unexpected, and wonderfully written, this is a book for both the die-hard fan and a good entrance for the new one.

This, like several of my other favorite books, is one that I struggle with describing, because part of its joy is the joy of discovery, finding out along with the characters what is happening. In this case, I will say that Cuckoo Song is the story of a young girl called Triss, who wakes up after an accident to find that everything is wrong. There are gaps in her memory, and her sister seems to hate her even more than usual. And she’s filled with a ravenous hunger that she cannot manage to stop, no matter how much she eats.

What follows starts off as a gloriously eerie, nightmarish story, as Triss struggles to make her memories match up, to find out what happened to her, and why strange things keep happening. Hardinge is really, really good at writing the just-barely-wrong details, the mirror world that doesn’t quite reflect true.

But things don’t end there. (I’m struggling to write this part without spoilers; even though I guessed the solution fairly early, I don’t want to ruin it for anyone else.) Instead of leaving us with a big revelation, Hardinge writes beyond that, turning the story into a beautiful examination of identity, of family and forgiveness, love and second-chances at life. The story is also set between the two World Wars, and there’s quite a bit about the memory of the Great War and the losses that people have suffered as a result; it haunts the story and underlies a number of choices made by the characters. And, as I’ve said before, I want more people to write like Hardinge does–great children’s books which are also aware of history, of politics and the implications of both. As in The Lost Conspiracy and the Mosca Mye books, Hardinge does not shy away from big questions, in this case about grief, loss, and the decisions people make.

Triss is a fantastic character, prickly and vulnerable, wrong and absolutely right. I loved the way Hardinge plays with the nuances of who she is, and who she chooses to be. Moreover, I loved the way her relationship with Pen develops, and the wonderful bittersweet hope of the ending.

I think this is the scariest of Hardinge’s books–the first quarter is one of those nightmare situations that when written well is incredibly terrifying–and yet, like The Lost Conspiracy, there are mostly not villains so much as people doing the wrong things for the right reasons. Against this is arrayed the strength of friendship, of sisterhood, of making a different choice than the ones you’re presented with. Ultimately I found it utterly compelling and beautifully written, and–as I’ve come to expect from Hardinge–a subtle, surprising look at the world and how we make ourselves in it.

Book source: bought through Book Depository (tragically not available in the US except as an ebook)
Book information: 2014, Pan Macmillan; upper middle grade/YA (Triss is eleven)
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Favorite Author page for Frances Hardinge

Other Cuckoo Song reviews:
The Book Smugglers
Ana @ Things Mean A Lot

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April 2014 reading list

Oh, such a thin one this month! Trying to comfort myself with the knowledge that there have been lots of other good things going on.

Books I’ve already talked about
Precursor by C.J. Cherryh
Defender by C.J. Cherryh
Explorer by C.J. Cherryh
The Princess Tales by Gail Carson Levine
Serpent’s Egg by Caroline Stevermer
Death Sworn by Leah Cypress

Other books
The Everlasting Meal by Tamar Adler: I loved this collection of essays and recipes on food, cooking, and the way we think about both. The prose is also a joy to read, to the point that I was posting quotes on my (sporadically used) tumblr. Lovely boo, and one that will definitely inform how I approach food and cooking in the future.

The Seven Sorcerers by Caro King: A middle grade fantasy. I liked the characters a lot, and the world, and the motivation for the main characters, but I found that the pacing was kind of draggy, especially towards the end. I kept waiting for something to happen.

Not a Creature Was Stirring
Act of Darkness
Quoth the Raven
A Great Day for the Deadly
by Jane Haddam: I wasn’t feel well and inhaled several of these while lying on my bed, the couch, and my bed again. They’re lightish mysteries, with a somewhat old fashioned feel and a nice detective. Occasionally the holiday-related aspect seemed a little forced, and the descriptions of characters a little cruel (there was one in the first book that really made me wince), but overall they’re the perfect sick day reading.

Saga, Vol. 1 by Brian Vaughan and Fiona Staples: I’ve been hearing good things about this graphic novel and they are definitely deserved. An epic story with a fun, slightly snarky voice and great visuals. Note that it is definitely more of an adult comic book–there’s some violence and sexual content, for people who want to avoid such things.

The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski: I have a great many thoughts about this one, so I will try to come up with an actual post soon. Suffice it to say that there’s a lot to like about it, and some aspects I quibble with a bit.

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March 2014 reading list

Books I’ve already talked about
The Year of Billy Miller by Kevin Henkes
How I Became a Ghost by Tim Tingle
Hunt for the Hydra by Jason Fry
Dragonborn by Toby Forward
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor
Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy by Gary Schmidt
Hide and Seek by Ida Vos
Kingdom Under the Sea by Joan Aiken
Sun Horse, Moon Horse by Rosemary Sutcliff
Binny For Short by Hilary McKay
Enemy Brothers by Constance Savery
Runemarks by Joanne Harris

Other books
The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson: Rachel Neumeier suggested this one when I posted about books that give me feels. It’s a heartwrenching contemporary YA. I liked Lennie, the main character, a lot. I especially liked that the story gives her room to make mistakes without judgement. And I was happy with the way the romance was resolved.

Hob and the Goblins by William Mayne: This is an older book. It’s an odd little story, which I enjoyed but in a dreamy sort of way which doesn’t really lend itself to enthusiasm. It might work well for fans of Elizabeth Goudge’s children’s books.

Rose by Holly Webb: This is a very lovely middle grade fantasy, which focuses on a different class than most books of its type. Rose is an orphan and then a servant, rather than a lady. I liked the historical setting and especially Rose, who is a lovely main character.

Constable & Toop by Gareth Jones: Another middle grade historical fantasy. For some reason, I didn’t like this one as much as I thought I was going to, and I’m not quite sure why. There were lots of nice elements, and yet somehow it never quite became amazing. Bah.

Charlotte, Sometimes by Penelope Farmer: Which I found, appropriately enough, on Charlotte’s Library. It’s a time-travel story, with an English boarding school feel. There’s a bit of heartache, but it’s not traumatic.

A Song for Bijou by Josh Farrar: This is a sweet middle grade romance with multi-cultural elements. It was nicely written, but at the same time I had niggling doubts about it. Perhaps something about how easy it was for Alex to enter into Bijou’s world? I don’t know.

Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh: Tears of laughter.

The Headless Cupid by Zilpha Keatley Snyder: The Egypt Game was one of my favorite books when I was younger, so I decided to try The Headless Cupid. It turned out to be super creepy! I appreciate ZKS’s writing chops, but no. Just no.

Five, Six, Seven, Nate by Tim Federle: I think I’m the only one who didn’t love this one as much as the first book. Maybe it’s just middle book syndrome, but so much seemed unresolved. I did like Nate’s romance, which was sweet and nicely done.

The Twistrose Key by Tone Almhjell: This is a nice classic-feeling middle grade fantasy. Like several other recent mg fantasies, it has a Scandinavian feeling to it (which makes perfect sense in Almhjell’s case). It doesn’t do new and exciting things, but it has the kind of comforting and old-fashioned feel of a good cup of hot chocolate.

The Blossoming Universe of Violet Diamond by Brenda Woods: A biracial girl connects with the black side of her family, who she hasn’t met because her father died before she was born and they’re not on speaking terms with her mother. It’s not very subtle, but it’s a sweet story and well written, and does come organically from Violet’s experiences. And there’s a lot of nice bits about identity and family and forgiveness.

Real American Girls Tell Their Own Stories by Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler
Bird Lake Moon by Kevin Henkes
The Dream Stealer by Sid Fleischman
A Girl Named Disaster by Nancy Farmer

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Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor

rollofthunder

Today, however, younger generations have no experience of that time when signs over rest-room doors, sings over water fountains, in restaurant windows and hotels said: WHITE ONLY, COLORED NOT ALLOWED. Today’s generation of children, as well as many of their parents and teachers, have not had to endure such indignities or even worse aspects of racism that once pervaded America, and I am grateful for that. But, unfortunately, as we all know, racism still exists.

-Mildred Taylor, Foreword to the 25th Anniversary edition of Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry

Until quite recently, I had not read Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, despite several people suggesting it to me. And then I was tired of middle grade fantasy that takes the same old tired tropes and recycles them without using them to do something new, and so I sat down and started to read Cassie Logan’s story.

I wish I had read it years ago; I am so glad I have read it now.

Days later, I still can’t stop thinking about how relevant–how tragically relevant–this book is today. The systems that held the Logan family and even the well-meaning whites helpless still exist, in our under-funded urban schools, our prison systems, our justice system that does not convict those who murder black men. I cannot stop thinking about T.J., about Trayvon Martin, about Jordan Davis, all the young black boys who are killed for the crime of not being perfect, who are killed for the crime of existing.

In one sense, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is the story of young black siblings growing up and becoming aware of the world they live in, that you can’t walk on the sidewalk, go to this town, talk to those people. Because you’re black. It is the story of their struggle to understand this system and what it means. Stacey cannot be friends with Jeremy, though they both might want to, and part of his maturing is realizing that this is true and accepting it.

If you want to see the pain of racism, its effects on everyone it touches, you should read this book.

Roll of thunder,
Hear my cry
Over the water
Bye and bye
Ole man comin’
Down the line
Whip in hand
To beat me down
But I ain’t
Gonna let him
Turn me ’round

But of course, this is only part of the story. And I was equally struck by another aspect, by the strength of the Logan family and the way they are portrayed. They, especially David, the children’s father, show the spirit that echoes through the titular song. There is understanding of the way the world is, and yet a refusal to accept it and give up. David Logan picks his battles, but he does fight. And again and again, despite their relative helplessness (30 years before “I Have a Dream”, deep in Mississippi, with no support) the Logan family chooses to do what’s right. Even Mary, perhaps more cautious than the others, pastes over the school books that show how little the white authorities care for black children. She does not win; they cannot win; they do it anyway.

And at the same time, despite the moral courage of all these characters, there is also understanding of the fact that they are relatively privileged. They are not sharecroppers, they have the land. This is explicitly spelled out by David to Stacey: “You were born blessed, boy, with land of your own. If you hadn’t been, you’d cry out for it while you try to survive…like Mr. Lanier and Mr. Avery. Maybe even do what they doing now. It’s hard on a man to give up, but sometimes it seems there just ain’t nothing else he can do.”

I was also struck by the sense of history, of family history, that’s present throughout. The stories of Paul-Edward, the children’s grandfather, and of his parents are told routinely. Cassie and the other Logan siblings have this history rooted in them, the history of slavery, freedom, hope, and the land. This is powerful, partly because it helps the reader really understand the motivations of David and Uncle Hammer, but also because it makes clear that the Logans remember the past, keep it alive, that their family history is important and real and vivid. Their lives are important and real and vivid. They matter.

And at the same time as all of this, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is the story of a young girl as she grows up. Cassie bickers with her siblings, she is afraid, she is lonely. She delights in the physical world around her; she sorrows over the world she lives in. She is flawed and human and wonderful. Her voice shines out through the pages of the book as clearly as though she were speaking, and her narration at the end is beautiful and terrible and absolutely pitch-perfect. More than any of the other Logans, even Stacey, she walked straight into my heart.

My father and the other storytellers told my family’s history truly, and it is this history that I have related in my books. When there was humor, my family passed it on. When there was tragedy, they passed it on. When the words hurt, they passed them on. My stories will not be ‘politically correct,’ so there will be those who will be offended by them, but as we all know, racism is offensive.
It is not polite, and it is full of pain.

-Mildred Taylor, Foreword to the 25th Anniversary edition of Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry

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Dragonborn by Toby Forward

dragonbornI’ll be honest: I was partly drawn to this one because of the cover. And also, because I like books about dragons and that’s what this one promised to be. It’s not exactly what it turned out to be, though, and I’m still mulling over what I think of that.

The basic plot of Dragonborn is a fairly standard coming-of-age/into-powers story. It starts off with Sam, who is twelve, returning from his usual fishing expedition to find that his master, the wizard Flaxfield, has died. He quickly discovers that this death means all of Flaxfield’s old apprentices returning home; they get off on the wrong foot (there is some question of whether Sam is really Flaxfield’s apprentice) and he takes off on his own, with only the dragon Starback for a companion.

The thing is, this doesn’t really convey the slightly odd experience of reading this book. I read through the whole thing pretty quickly and without a lot of fuss. And yet, when I think about it, a lot of it didn’t work very well for me. Take, for instance, the fact that the entire misunderstanding that drives the plot could have been averted if one person had been present–and the text never gives us a reason for her absence. This is the kind of coincidental thing that tends to bother me me. Or the fact that the whole thing meanders through multiple sets of characters and settings in a rather dream-like way.

These are smaller things, but there are two larger issues that I keep coming back to. One is Ash, the antagonist, who is very effectively creepy but who is not given any kind of motivation, even a bad one. I rather suspect that this may be drawn out in the sequels (and I have a Theory). And yet the fact that for the entire first book we are given a character who has a tremendous influence over the plot but who is never given more than a vague “doesn’t like wizards, does like hurting people” as a motivation or character, does not make me feel like the story is doing things in a particularly nuanced way.

The second issue is that there’s simply too much going on, and what should be the emotional heart of the story–Sam’s internal journey and his relationship with Starback–gets rather lost in the changes of place and splitting of narratives. I wish this were a more focused story because I think it would pack a pretty hefty emotional punch and as it is, I don’t feel that it really resonated with me.

This is partly a pity because Forward is an excellent prose writer–the opening is just lovely–and has some fun references to Gerard Manley Hopkins, of all things! But by the end of the book, I felt rather as though the early promise of the beginning was squandered.

I suppose I’ve written myself into a more definite opinion than I originally had, so that’s something. I may try the sequel anyway, to see if the strands that bothered me are addressed.

Book source: public library
Book information: 2012, Bloomsbury Childrens; middle grade fantasy

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How I Became a Ghost by Tim Tingle

HIBAG - dustcover FINAL MAR192013.inddThis book first entered my consciousness when Charlotte reviewed it back in September. It went on my TBR, and sat there until a recent discussion on the CCBC listserv I subscribe to. I wanted to be able to follow the discussion, so I sat down and read the book, finally.

Before I began reading, I didn’t know very much about the story or the history that underlies it. While this is obviously not something I’m proud of (at least as far as the history is concerned), not knowing what was going to happen next did keep the suspense going through the book. I suspect many mainstream readers would share that experience, and I wondered how much Tingle counted on that being the case.

But make no mistake–How I Became a Ghost is based on history, real and raw. Tingle deals with this without being unsubtle, and there’s a kind of directness about Isaac’s voice that lets the reader react to what’s happening without pointing to the moral. So yes, this is a powerful story with a wonderful narrator, one who’s smart and thoughtful and loyal to his family and his culture.

I also liked the subtle way the narrative pushes back against stereotypes. Isaac and his family live in a cabin, along with their relatives and neighbors. He has a dog, Jumper (one of my favorite characters in the story), and a family, a life that is cast as stable, even if it’s not rich or high-powered. All of that changes when his community is uprooted and forced onto the Trail, and it’s clear that for the Choctaw this is a deeply painful and devastating event that is done to them. I appreciated that even though Isaac doesn’t fully understand treaties, he is aware of them and their influence on his life.

And, even though there are some very sad and horrifying moments, there are also some very funny ones. The story ends with a sense of hope–that even though all of these things have been done to the Choctaw, everything and everyone they have lost, they still have a sense of pride in their culture and people.

I am not sure whether to say this is a fantasy book or not. Personally–and I’m not sure anyone else will get this–I don’t tend to think of books which simply take seriously the spiritual or religious beliefs of a culture as fantasy. (So, books where the Greek gods simply exist–ie, Mary Renault.) So I would tend to say that How I Became a Ghost isn’t fantasy. However, not everyone will share that definition, so I will say that by most people’s lights, this is a historical fantasy.

Isaac is ten, and I think ten and up is probably a good age to give this one to kids. Those who are already starting to grapple with the difficulties of the world and have begun to realize how cruel people can be to each other. That said, as with every book, it’s a delicate balance and depends on the child. (I read The Hiding Place when I was about ten and it made a deep impression, in a good way. This could easily be that book for another child.)

Book source: public library
Book information: 2013, Roadrunner Press; juvenile/middle grade

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