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The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl by Stacy McAnulty

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The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl by Stacy McAnulty
Random House, 2018

Week two of the Middle Grade Fiction shortlist reviews is a novel which was the runner-up in our judging panel (just behind the stupendous The Parker Inheritance). Though it was not my personal runner-up, I enjoyed it very much and I believe it has a great deal to offer to middle graders who feel that their differences isolate them.

12yo Lucy Callahan was struck by lightning four years ago and since then has been a math genius as she has acquired savant syndrome (apparently a real, though very rare, thing). She also has OCD and her brain is often taken over by numbers. She has been homeschooled by her Nana (her mother and father are both dead) and has graduated from high school online and is ready for college classes, but now Nana thinks she should develop some other skills and has decided she should go to a real middle school in a grade appropriate to her age.

Reluctantly Lucy goes along with this and decides she wants to be “normal” and ordinary so she hides her math skills, but she can’t hide her compulsive behaviors and quickly becomes the target for the mean kids’ laughter. But Lucy does make friends, with Windy and Levi, and they form a group for their class community project, which benefits from Lucy’s gift.

Perceiving yourself to be “different” is a common enough theme is middle grade and YA fiction, and, indeed, is common in real life, which Ms McAnulty acknowledges when Windy pushes back at Lucy – asking her if she thinks she’s the only person who’s ever felt different at their school. Of course, in one respect, Lucy is very different, but in many others she’s just a regular kid and the author does a great job of showing these different facets through Lucy’s narration. She wants to have friends and she wants to be treated the same as the other kids, with respect and dignity. She does not try to make anyone feel bad about their math skills, in fact she offers to help Levi as well as suggesting some forums he could try if he would find it weird to be tutored by her. Her friend Windy acknowledges that Lucy is an accepting person, she doesn’t try to change anyone but tries to understand them.

The secondary characters are well developed. Windy, in particular, is a lively girl, enthused about doing good in the macro sense, but a little bit oblivious when it comes to actually making a real difference. Levi is a bit more of a sketch: he’s a brown skinned boy with two moms who likes photography, but he’s more grounded than Windy. The community project ingeniously meshes together the skills of all three kids and could inspire readers to see a way to making a difference themselves.

I did, however, find the lead mean girl, Maddie, a bit of an obvious caricature. She had been friends with Windy up to 5th grade but had then moved on to become more of an alpha. She makes fun of Lucy but I felt the author was a little too obvious in showing that this was only because she feels bad about herself as her mother is overly critical (but, hey, it’s always the mother’s fault, right?)

As Lucy’s year at middle school passes, she understands and appreciates why her Nana sent her there, so when she has an opportunity to move to a high performing school which would allow her to develop her math skills more, she is torn and the reader will be too.

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Lost Soul, Be at Peace written and illustrated by Maggie Thrash

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Lost Soul, Be at Peace written and illustrated by Maggie Thrash
Candlewick, 2018

In this idiosyncratic graphic sequel to Honor Girl (2015), Thrash (also author of the deeply fabulous We Know It Was You) mixes memoir with fiction to convey vividly the intensity of growing up.

A year and a half on from Honor Girl, Maggie is now a junior at an elite Atlanta school and feeling isolated and depressed: her grades are plummeting and her classmates are completely indifferent when she outs herself. Things are no better at home where her mother seems to want a different daughter (“You’d be very pretty if you weren’t so determined to be weird”) and her father is wrapped up in his work as a federal judge.

Maggie’s closest connection is with her beloved cat Thomasina who disappears inside their house, and when Maggie goes looking for her she finds instead a ghost called Tommy. As she and Tommy explore his background and connection to her family, Maggie becomes more aware of her privilege as well as understanding the threshold she is reluctantly crossing into adulthood. It becomes clear that she is the lost soul and that “there’s a part of you that dies when you grow up.”

Through her recognizable slightly childlike pen and water color pencil illustrations Thrash explores the overpowering feelings of being a teenager: the absolute ennui of an afternoon at home, the thrill of flirting, the horror she feels when she sits in on one of her father’s court cases. The characters’ faces and bodies, often just a few lines, wonderfully convey this wealth and depth of emotions.

Ideal for readers going through, or reflecting back on, the turmoil of adolescence.

Be Prepared written and illustrated by Vera Brosgol

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Be Prepared written and illustrated by Vera Brosgol
First Second, 2018.

Poor Vera just doesn’t fit in anywhere. In this memoir, the 9-year-old Russian immigrant tries to be like her affluent American friends but her mother ruins her perfect sleepover birthday party by getting the wrong sort of cake (with Russian writing on it!) and a non-Pizza Hut, non-stuffed crust pizza. And then her friends actually all get picked up in the middle of the night because they’re scared. Vera decides she wants to go to summer camp, just like her friends, and finds a Russian one, ORRA, where she believes she won’t feel “weird and different,” so she persuades her mother to find the money for both her and her reluctant younger brother Phil to go.

Sadly, and heart-squeezingly, camp is nothing like Vera was expecting. She gets put with much older and more sophisticated girls who are not at all interested in bra-less bespectacled Vera. And the bathrooms! Meanwhile, Phil seems to be having a ball. The author does not shy away from the absolute misery of most of her time at ORRA, while still making it funny for the reader. Though things improve after Vera goes on a hiking trip and makes friend with a younger girl, her wretchedness when her mother asks her to stay another two weeks is palpable. The only pleasure Vera finds is in sketching and she uses this talent to “buy” friendship by drawing the other campers, though this backfires on her.

The illustrations, in black and shades of olive green manage to evoke all the misery and occasional bright spot of camp, as well as the explosion of happiness at leaving and never having to go back. The illustrations of the glum owl-bespectacled Vera trudging through her days at camp and comparing her suffering to that of the Russian peasants, are touching and humorous, and sharply contrast with her exuberant joy when she finds a pal.

Included at the back of the book is a genuIne letter that Vera sent her mother from camp. I cannot imagine being on the receiving end of such a misery-filled missive. My kids have had their ups and downs at camp but have at least managed a somewhat cheerful postcard.

We leave Vera about to move to London – dare we hope for further installments?

Granted by John David Anderson

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Granted by John David Anderson
Walden Pond, 2018

Magic is draining out of the world, leaving very little for the fairies to be use to grant wishes. When rookie wish granter Ophelia Delphinium Fidgets is finally sent on her first mission, to get a purple bike for a girl called Kesarah, it should be fairly straightforward. Instead Ophelia gets into one pickle after another before realizing that sometimes rules have to be broken.

Anderson, better known for his sharp and nimbly written realistic novels Ms Bixby’s Last Day and Posted, has created a fanciful world: a quirky mixture of whimsical wishlore and portentous digressions about the loss of wonder juxtaposed with the officialdom of the fairy world and the quotidian lives of the fairies (Ophelia is a fan of the mocha lattes in the new café on the 147th floor of Grant Tower). However, this scene setting slows down the pace, particularly in the first third of the book.

Ophelia is headstrong, impulsive, and initially rather a know it all, but as her adventures pile up she recognizes that she can’t do everything on her own or in her own way. She teams up with a stray mutt with a heart of gold, who is used to being called “Stupid Dog” but she calls him Sam. The warm-hearted core of the novel rests with this affectionate partnership as they both learn the value of friendship and helping each other.

While this didn’t have quite the same grip of Mr Anderson’s school novels or the same acute appeal to a specific age group, it is pleasantly imaginative and folksy. Ideal for readers of fairybooks who want to peek behind the curtain.

The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman

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The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman
Knopf, 2017

Pullman makes a welcome and largely successful return to the world of His Dark Materials with the first book in a new trilogy, The Book of Dust, set when Lyra Belacqua is just a baby. I LOVED all three books of HDM but most especially the middle one, The Subtle Knife which introduced Will.

In the familiar steampunky Oxford, where a person’s soul is an externalized animal daemon and alethiometers can reveal the truth, 6-month old Lyra has been placed in the sanctuary of a nunnery to protect her from the Magisterium, the ruling religious body, after a witch has prophesied that she is “destined to put an end to destiny.”

The protagonist is 11-year old Malcolm Polstead – a marvelously enterprising, curious, and full-hearted boy who is something of a precursor of Will. He helps out at his parents’ pub and at the nunnery where he meets and becomes deeply enamored of baby Lyra. In his wanderings around the city he becomes involved with a scholar-spy who might be working against the Magisterium.

When a supernatural storm floods the country, Malcolm, along with sharp and no-nonsense 16 year-old Alice, rescues Lyra from the nunnery. They set off in his canoe, La Belle Sauvage, to London to the perceived safety of Lyra’s father. On this odyssey, which has rather more natural and supernatural encounters than I really wanted, they are relentlessly pursued by a smiling villain and his hideously deformed hyena daemon.

Pullman expands the world – three alethiometers! – and adds new characters including the uncomfortably creepy villain, Gerard Bonneville. There are returning characters, including Lyra’s parents Lord Asriel and the chilling Mrs. Coulter, which might bring a frisson of familiarity to HDM readers but new readers will not be disadvantaged.

The target is still organized religion and Pullman pursues this with the Consistorial Court of Discipline, the Magisterium’s secret police, and the League of St. Alexander, which empowers children to turn in supposed enemies of the Church. Dust is discussed briefly, but to be honest, I didn’t feel I got much out of those passages and recall feeling similarly vague in the later (chronologically) books.

The ending is frustratingly abrupt, raising many questions and it is unclear how or even if the next book in the series, apparently set a decade after His Dark Materials, will answer them. Nonetheless, even with flaws, this is an impressive extension to a beloved series that will appeal to tweens, teens, and adults.

Pigs Might Fly by Nick Abadzis ; illustrated by Jerel Dye

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Pigs Might Fly by Nick Abadzis ; illustrated by Jerel Dye
First Second, July, 2017.

In this exuberant middle grade graphic adventure novel Lily Leanchops, a teenaged pig, makes an airplane that can fly without the use of magic and uses it when the Warthogs threaten to invade Pigdom Plains.

With a mix of science, magic, and myth, Abadzis’s (Laika, 2007) plot is a little long-winded as Lily finds out what is really motivating the Warthogs and attempts to prevent the attack on her homeland, but witty porcine wordplay, from place names including the Bay of Pigs and Piggadilly Circus to expressions like “Hogforsaken,” keeps the story entertaining.

With an Edwardian setting and character types, Dye’s illustrations, placed in a mostly conventional comic book layout, are colorful, energetic, and expressive and the lively near-human anthropomorphic pigs have a variety of skintones from pink to tan to dark brown.

Lily’s story arc, from being disbelieved by her father, the famous inventor Hercules Fatchops, to being the “Aerial Honker” that fights off the invaders, is somewhat conventional but gives the reader a determined and plucky protagonist to root for.

An unexpected last page twist sets up a sequel and leaves room for further exploration of this world.

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A Bandit’s Tale: The Muddled Misadventures of a Pickpocket by Deborah Hopkinson

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bandits-taleA Bandit’s Tale: The Muddled Misadventures of a Pickpocket by Deborah Hopkinson
Knopf, 2016.

Taking stylistic and plot arc cues from the picaresque novels of the 18th and 19th century (what? You don’t know what those are? Neither did I until I read the author’s note), this charming tale manages to squeeze in social commentary as well as a heartwarming tale of an early American immigrant.

11 year-old Rocco Zaccaro is brought to America in 1887 by a padrone who has promised to send money back to Rocco’s impoverished family in Southern Italy. But the padrone makes money by sending boys out to be street musicians – then takes the money they earn while keeping them on the border of starvation.

Rocco has got a bit more gumption than many of the boys and, while getting himself into scrapes, many illicit, along the way, ultimately ends up as a boy his father would be proud of.

Though Hopkinson has a great time with Rocco’s romp through the seedy side of late 19th century Manhattan, she also has a serious purpose as well. Through weaving in real life people, she looks at the press exposure of child exploitation by Max Fischel and photographer Jacob Riis, as well as the first inkling of animal rights through “meddlers” Mike and Mary Hallahan. These characters are completely embedded in the story and the author does a great job of not making their roles and issues stand out.

Ideal for any middle schooler who has enjoyed Oliver!