November 15, 2015
This week I had every intention of telling you that I had taken a break from middle grades fiction, and that I had needed some time with adults. It is true. I did need some time in a book with adults. I bought and read a book from a favorite series of mine, with adult characters with whom I enjoy spending time. But I finished that book. Friday night I picked up a book that has been sitting on my shelf since December - Caught which is part of The Missing series by Margaret Peterson Haddix.
I started The Missing series last winter after finishing Ms. Haddix’s wonderful series The Shadow Children. This time I wasn’t as entranced. The series begins with a wonderful mystery - a plane disappears, then reappears, and is filled with nothing but babies. No one knows where it came from, or who the babies are. Fast forward 13 years, and the children who were on that flight begin to get mysterious letters. “They are coming for you,” is the message -- but who are they and why are they coming? But then the author threw in time travel, and the paradox of traveling back in time to correct past crimes without harming history, and at that point I was less excited. The first couple of books involved periods of history that were not familiar to me, and they were hard to get through.
Caught, on the other hand, was not hard to get through. In fact, I couldn’t put it down, and finished it before lunch on Saturday. You have heard of Albert Einstein, of course, but did you know that he had a secret daughter who disappeared? Or did she….
I enjoyed Caught so much that I immediately picked up the next book in the series, Risked. I’m almost through with that, so stay tuned…..
P.S. Please don’t call these books “the Haddix” books. I don’t know why the covers have the author’s name so prominently displayed, but Haddix is her name, not the series.
Have you ever had a friend recommend a book that you waited and waited to read, only to discover that it really was a wonderful book? And you wondered why on earth had it taken you so long to read it? That was my experience with Rules by Cynthia Lord.
Rules was a NC Battle of the Books book last year, which is a HUGE recommendation for a book. The books chosen for Battle of the Books are usually wonderful books, and everyone that I have read has been a treasure. The students who read the book raved about it as well. Everyone I spoke with said it was a wonderful book. So why did I let it collect dust for more than half a year? I have no idea. But once I picked it up, I couldn’t put it down.
The main character is Catherine. She is 12 and has a little brother with autism. He can’t learn basic lessons simply by watching other people like the rest of us. He has to be directly taught things like, “Keep your pants on in public.” That is the basic premise to the book, all of the rules that David has to be taught every day. But through the book, other themes arise. Can you be friends with someone who is different from everyone else? Catherine has to wade through the difficulties of friends through this story, and learns that friends come in all shapes and sizes.
I recommend this book to everyone. It helped me understand autism better, as well as the day to day challenges we all face in understanding those around us. What we think we understand about people may not be true at all. It is up to all of us to look beyond the surface to really understand those around us.
October 31, 2015
Imagine that on your 13th birthday, you would receive a power -- a savvy -- something amazing and wonderful. This power might give you the ability to become invisible at will, or speak to insects. It could be the power to grow trees from anything, or to move the earth with just your thoughts. Or possibly, it could be the power to destroy everything around you.
On the eve of Ledger Kale’s 13th birthday, he is earnestly hoping for a savvy that would please his father. He is hoping for the power to run faster and longer than anyone else. But what happens the next day is like nothing they ever expected.
Through the book, Ledger learns that our gifts can be terribly destructive, or incredibly constructive. We just have to learn to scumble. Scumble is an art term that refers to the act of toning down an intense color in order to bring the picture into balance. As Ledger learns to scumble his savvy, his life, which was out of balance, becomes balanced once again.
Of course, there is more to the story than this - missing gold, an evil banker determined to foreclose on everyone in town, and the town girl with a secret power of her own.
I must confess, it took me a long time to get into this book. The beginning confused me -- probably because it is a companion book to Savvy, a book I haven’t read. The characters were running together, the terms savvy and scumble were a mystery, and I really couldn’t see where the story was going. But I stuck with it, and I’m glad I did. I think there are some great themes in this book. One theme is that we have to be true to ourselves, even if we aren’t exactly what other people want us to be. One quote that I love was spoken to a character whose savvy allows him to become invisible. But he was then never visible. His brother said, “It can take a lot of strength to show up and be yourself….don’t you think?” (pg 240). I think that is true for all of us. It can be very scary to allow others to see the real us. But as Ledger learned, it is better to let our talents be seen, and to use our unique talents to help those around us as only we can.
October 25, 2015
Imagine waking up one morning and not being allowed to cross I-485 into the northern part of Charlotte. Imagine that just north of Ballantyne, there was a wall, guarded by policemen with powerful guns, ready and willing to shoot anyone who tried to cross to the north. Now imagine that your father and brother had been uptown overnight. They are on the other side of I-485 and you are forbidden to ever be with them again. What would you do?
That scenario really happened on August 13, 1961, in the city of Berlin in the country of Germany. Overnight a wall was put up by Soviet forces, splitting the city in half, and the country into thirds. Actual families were divided by the wall, with some members of the family in the West and some in the East. A Night Divided by Jennifer A. Nielsen is a fictional account that mirrors the actual events of those days.
In A Night Divided, Gerta, her oldest brother Fritz, and her mother are in East Berlin. Her father and middle brother, Dominic, were in West Berlin when the wall went up. They are forever separated by politics and national differences. As the years go by, life in East Berlin is marked with food shortages, apartments bugged with listening devices for the police, and the ever present threat of arrest if anyone appears to be disloyal to the state. Finally after 4 years, 12 year old Gerta has had enough. She thinks her father has sent her a message with a plan to escape. However, attempting this plan will certainly mean arrest for her entire family, and possibly death. She must make a decision.
I enjoyed this book a great deal (thank you, James). Towards the end of the book, I found myself racing to see what happened, and had to force myself to slow down my reading, so that I could absorb every detail.
I especially enjoyed this book because, having grown up with the Iron Curtain as a fact of life (I was born a few years after it went up), I was interested to see what life was like behind the Curtain. In 1985, I got the chance to spend a month at a university in East Germany. I studied German at the University of Rostock in the northern part of the country. From the first day, when my passport was confiscated by the police, to the day I was threatened with arrest for reading a science fiction novel I had brought with me, I knew I was not in a country that allowed personal freedom.
The cars that are mentioned in the book, Trabants, were rare. Most people didn’t have one, and if they did, they had waited for over 10 years for it to be delivered once they had ordered it. One night, I got to ride in one an East German friend owned. It was barely a shell of a car surrounding an engine. It got us to the sea shore for ice cream, but I wasn’t sure it was going to get us back to the dorm again.
The listening devices that are described in the book were apparently real as well, though I never actually saw one. One day the school took us on an outing to a seaside resort. I happened on an East German gentleman who taught English at one of the universities, and we enjoyed a long walk around the island. However, he continually had to warn me to stop talking freely, pointing to the trees and gesturing that they had ears.
A Night Divided brought all of these memories back to me. I’m so glad that I read it. Now I want to go back to that part of Germany and see how things have changed since the wall came down on November 9, 1989.
It is rare that a book leaves me speechless, but Stella by Starlight by Sharon M. Draper is one of those books.
Set in the NC Blue Ridge Mountains in 1932, Stella and her family face racism with bravery and love. When Stella and her little brother inadvertently witness Ku Klux Klan activity in the middle of the night, their world becomes significantly less secure. With the upcoming presidential election, their father determines to exercise his right to vote. But no one can predict the hate filled backlash that visits their community.
Sharon M. Draper has written a stunning novel for middle readers that allows all to experience the realities of racism first hand through the eyes of young Stella. Based on family history, Stella by Starlight shows the reader what the African American experience was in rural NC during the 1930s, from illl-equipped public schools, to inadequate medical help.
Chosen as a NC Elementary Battle of the Books title for 2015-2016, this book is recommended for every middle grades reader.
I have long been a fan of the TV show Bones. Did you know, the books that TV series is based on have been written by a Charlotte based author? Kathy Reichs lives here in Charlotte, and now, she and her son, Brendan, have teamed up to write a series of adventure books for 5th-8th grade readers.
The Virals series is based in Charleston, SC. 14-year-old Tory Brennan, the grand-niece of Temperance Brennan of the Bones series, has moved to Charleston to live with her father after the tragic death of her mother in Boston. They live on a remote barrier island with a few other families, all of whom work for Charleston University in a research facility off the SC coast. In the first book, Tory and her friends are accidentally infected with a genetically engineered strain of the dog disease Parvo. Their infection changes their lives. Now embedded in their genetic code are the characteristics of wolves.
Using new wolf “super powers,” these four teenagers solve mysteries, while committing a few crimes themselves. I couldn’t put these books down.
Best suited for advanced 5th grade and middle school readers.