Allison's Book Bag

Archive for the ‘Realistic’ Category

The Ginger Kid by Steve Hofstetter is the inspiring memoir of a misfit who became a popular comedian. I related to Hofstetter’s awkward adolescence and applaud his message to aim high. The Ginger Kid is a notable addition to the young adult nonfiction.

Steve grew up an unhappy teen. He was a shy poor redhead who spent most of school years being bullied. He had very few friends and his first date was with a girl who simply wanted the prestige of having a boyfriend. In addition to being a nerd, Steve didn’t excel at sports or academics. He also spent many years being the brunt of jokes instead of making others laugh. His family often wasn’t helpful either. His parents never got anything done on time and they often fought. Steve could have easily ended up a nobody.

The teen years weren’t kind to me either. I was shy and introverted. Although somehow I mostly escaped being bullied, I had a highly sensitive personality and so the smallest criticisms wounded me. My friends and I were on the fringe of our peers, perhaps because we were average in sports, academics, looks, and everything. Like Steve, one of my passions was writing, which didn’t win me any favor among my peers either. Being the only child of a single father made me different, which also negatively impacted my social acceptance. Unlike Steve, by the end of high school, I still didn’t know who I wanted to be.

In his high school graduation speech, Steve credited a positive mindset, hard work, and the right people for preparing him to face the world. One of those right people was a high school teacher. Mr. Mikkelson gave automatic points to those students who showed that they had read and understood the assigned material. In addition, he allowed Steve to choose baseball as the focus of his main economics paper, because he knew Steve would take the work seriously. Thanks to Mr. Mikkelson, Steve started to succeed in school as a student. Another one of those right people was his brother. David gave him this sage advice: “Most people live their life in the middle. They don’t go far down, but they don’t go far up either. The further you go toward this top line, the further you will also go towards the bottom line. You decide if it’s worth.” Steve kept this advice in his mind when he applied for improv, which taught him many life lessons, and ultimately helped him find his place in life.

Even as an adult, I still at times wonder if aiming high is worth it, and it helps to know that others have faced this quandary. One Sunday earlier this fall, my husband and I took our therapy cat to Home Depot on a shopping trip. As I walked into the store wearing a “proud pet mom” shirt and pushing a cat stroller, I experienced strong misgivings. I wondered whether everyone who saw me would dub me a “crazy cat lady”. Then I thought about Steve’s decision to always aim high. Sure, there were peers who ridiculed him and disliked him, but there were also peers who enjoyed his presence and who had his back. The reality is that no matter what path Steve choose, there would always be places where he didn’t fit but also places where he would. Similarly, when I take my therapy cat in public, there will be people who roll their eyes but there will also be those who will stop to say hello and even feel better because they got to pet Rainy.

Everyone gets scared and everyone experiences rejected. How one handles these feelings can make a huge difference in who one will become in life. Most of the readers of The Ginger Kid won’t end up becoming famous like Steve, but they might find themselves inspired to do improv or to follow some other dream that will positively change their life. Such is the power of a good book!

I always enjoy a new novel by Kathryn Erskine. The Incredible Magic of Being is no exception. In this middle-grade story, Erskine has once again given a fresh approach to the themes of diversity, family relationships, and of loss and grief.

As with many of Erskine’s characters, Julian has a unique way of looking at the world. Through chapter titles, narrative, and the Facts and Random Thoughts sidebars, Julian’s love of science shines in both serious and humorous ways. For example, the first chapter is called Black Holes and Messier Objects. In this chapter, Julian compares his sister to a black hole. Anyone who has met an explosive teen with sympathize. At the same time, I can’t help but laugh when Julian shares that his sister at times makes a noise like an orangutan, wears earbuds and sunglasses even inside, and has moods that spook him. And then I feel sad again when Julian compares himself to a Messy Object. This isn’t a reference to a messy room but to an object that gets in the way.

Family relationships are an integral part of The Incredible Magic of Being. The changing dynamics between Julian and his sister Pookie will feel real to anyone who has a sibling. The two used to be like magnets. Pookie would even read to Julian when he had nightmares. Now the two have drifted apart. At times, the two quarrel such as during the car drive to their new home in Maine. Pookie tells Julian to stop kicking her backpack. Julian’s mom takes his side, asking him to stop jiggling his feet and to instead take calm breaths. When she calls him a freak, Julian chooses to touch Pookie’s backpack and inwardly hopes that she won’t notice. At times, Julian still tries to connect with his sister. When their parents assign them both chores to prepare for the family’s new Bed and Breakfast venture, Julian asks Pookie to work together with him. Because she hates the Bed and Breakfast, Pookie refuses to do even her own chores,  and so Julian elects to do all the chores to keep the peace. The enmity continues until their neighbor has a heart attack and they need each other.

Despite the fact their neighbor could prevent their family from building a Bed and Breakfast by the nearby lake, Julian feels sorry for Mr. X who has lost his wife and is now completely alone. At first Julian acts like an obnoxious child in his insistence that Mr. X needs to have him as a friend. Just as much, Mr. X acts like a grumpy old man who has no time for anyone or anything because of his age and grief. Through a series of twists and turns, a magical relationship develops between these two strong characters of very different ages. For example, in Julian’s mind, Julian’s desire for a dog and Mr. X’s need for a companion can be met, if Mr. X adopts a dog but allows Julian to care for it. Except then Mr. X surprises Julian by asking that he teach his dog and himself water safety, something that Julian doesn’t want to do due to being afraid of water, drowning, and death.

There are many more features to The Incredible Magic of Being that I’ve left out such as the relationship between Julian’s lesbian parents. It shows the realistic struggles that every couple faces in attempting to stay connected, raise children, and find a meaningful place in the world. Then there’s the slightly paranormal undertone, which leads to a surprisingly revelation. I encourage you to read The Incredible Magic of Being and experience Erskine’s memorable writing for yourself.

One-Two by Igor Eliseev is an atypical reading experience. Set in Russia in the 1980’s and 1990’s, when the USSR has just ended and Russia is still in its infancy, One-Two takes you into the mind of conjoined twins Faith and Hope. The style is at first disconcerting, being told from an alternating first and second person, but in the end feels like the perfect choice. A psychological drama, the novel reflects on how difficult but also how important it is to remain human.

Faith and Hope do not have an easy life. Their own mother, aghast at the sight of them, signed their death certificate. The twins were handed over to one institute and then another as experimental subjects. When the scientists wearied of the twins, they were transferred to boarding school where they experienced some measure of happiness. The windows had no grids, the air smelled of moss and pine, and the twins felt like normal children for the first time. They even developed friendships. Unfortunately, due to a suicide by one of the boarders, their stay was short-lived. The next stop was an orphanage, where once again the twins were viewed as objects of curiosity and sunk into misery. Their one relief was a library and the news that successful operations were being performed to separate conjoined twins. But again, these comforts were short-lived. One-Two is a hard story at times to read, as there seems be no redemption in sight.

But I want redemption for Faith and Hope, who from start to finish I am rooting for. I like who the twins are. They value friendships from their peers, the knowledge to be found in libraries, and the kindness of strangers. They’re also self-aware and know when they are being cowardly or mean, but also how to be strong in the face of relentless suffering and pain. I empathize with the twins who wish for a different appearance, just as many of us are dissatisfied with our looks. Faith grows up knowing the story of the Ugly Duckling by heart, because she wants to undergo a similar transformation. She treasures artwork of a friend who depicts them as beautiful. Whether accurate or not, I find enlightening the insights into life as a conjoined twin. One teacher tells the class that anyone cheating will be seated at separate desks, and Faith laments how impossible that would be. Then there are the constant questions from bystanders of how the two function day-by-day with bodies that are conjoined. Perhaps the most bittersweet is how the twins at times encourage other and at other times wish desperately to be their own person. Finally, I feel abhorrence at their treatment. When the twins take a bus ride, passengers make comments such as they’ll never get used to them and they’ll one day turn into haggish toads. At the orphanage, when staff see them, the twins are told to cover themselves. And these are among the least cruel reactions.

The style is initially what I least cared for. The first person is used when Faith describes her traumatic childhood, and the second person is used when she talks to her conjoined twin. There are times when I wanted to simply stay inside Faith’s head and times when I wanted to know what her sister thought not what Faith said to or about her. At the same time, the technique serves to increase tension, and thereby creates a frightening foreboding. While narrating her story Faith occasionally presents philosophical truths that seemed too mature for her to know at the age being depicted. At the same time, her emotions swing from optimism to despair, and feel agonizingly real. By the novel’s end, I felt as if the author could not have chosen any other way to tell his story.

One-Two by Igor Eliseev is one of those books that need to be reread due to its complexity. The twins manage to struggle past thoughts of revenge, suicide, and other dark emotions to hold on to the belief that their life has been amazing and full of miracle, and therein they teach us how to be human. Upon the initial reading one will grasp the essentials of the plot and the characters, but an additional reading will be needed to fully comprehend all the truths being imparted.

Graphic novels have grown in popularity over the past decade. In some libraries, the hottest children’s books are often graphic novels. Here are three graphic novel recommendations for different ages groups.

The Boy, the Bear, the Baron, the Bard features a young boy who finds himself whisked back to the 16th century England while exploring an abandoned theater. He emerges on the stage of the Globe Theatre in the middle of a performance, much to the chagrin of William Shakespeare himself. A chase erupts, wherein the young boy frees and then befriends both a caged bear and an imprisoned baron. Kids and their parents will want to study the detailed illustrations to get the most out of this wordless paneled graphic novel.

Lunch Lady and the Cyborg Substitute, the first title in the Lunch Lady series, introduces an uncover hero who assumes the guise of a lunch lady. A group of school friends who call themselves the Breakfast Bunch take a stand against bullies, agonize over what clubs to join, laugh at each other’s food choices, and debate who should win Teacher of the Year award. One day they follow the Lunch Lady home to see what she does when not serving meals. This leads to them teaming up with the Lunch Lady, her sidekick, and their crime-fighting gadgets against a suspicious substitute teacher. Mayhem abounds in this fast-paced madcap adventure, which has been a hit with both boys and girls.

For older readers comes the autobiographical novel called Smile. It tells of Raina who just wants to be a normal sixth-grader, but one night after Girl Scouts she trips and falls, damaging her two front teeth. This seemingly simple incident leads to years of agonizing over braces, headgear, surgery, and even a retainer with fake teeth. As if all this wasn’t already enough, Raina must maneuver her way through the confusion of changing friendships, dating, and self-identity. Although Smile takes place in the 1980’s, it still feels fresh. Anyone who has experienced the pain of dental work and adolescent angst will relate. Just as important, the novel will resonate with anyone who has ever struggled to find their creative voice.

Reprinted with permission from Lincoln Kids. This article is original in content and not to be reproduced without permission. Copyright 2018.

From the ravaged tiny Polynesian island of Vaitea arises a hero and heroine for our times. Based on his ten years of Easter Island research, Edward Stanton has written an inspiring adventure about a brother and sister, their island, and how they saved it. In Wide as the Wind, Miru and Renga face tough choices and much hardship when they set sail to a distant island to find the seeds and shoots of trees that could reforest their homeland. Their return to Vaitea reaps romance and additional challenges in this teen historical novel.

Adventure is at the forefront of this tightly-written novel. Prior to embarking on their journey, Miru and Renga learn the sailor’s craft. Their grandfather teaches them to weave sails of pounded bark, cut full-sized paddles, make nets of mulberry cloth, and fashion birdbone hooks. He also teaches them to coast the island in a longboat, navigate by the sun, moon, and stars, recognize winds, currents, and constellations, and to fish. After recruiting a third crewman, the brother and sister duo set sail. On their journey, they brave the elements. The wind gusts. The sea roars. Supplies are washed overboard. The sun burns, parching their throats. They encounter sharks and their third crewman is attacked. Miru, Renga, and their third crewsman sail fifty-two days before finding land, and this is just the beginning of their adventure.

At the heart of Wide as the Wind also lies a theme. Years of tribal wars have devastated Vaitea. Tribes people who survived are now facing starvation. To save them, Miru must personally sacrifice romantic love, suffer injury and loss, and even risk his life. Even when they return from their journey to a distant island with the seeds and shoots of trees necessary to reforest their homeland, the tribal wars threaten to continue. Although some historical accounts suggest that extinction of natural resources of the real-life Easter Island inhabitants started long before internal conflicts, the latter certainly didn’t help. In basing his story on a real place, Stanton has crafted a parable that shows how mankind’s violence can lead to environmental destruction and even the end of a world.

Wide as the Wind has many other positives. The characters are realistic. Miru and Renga are likeable teens to which every reader can relate. Miru disagrees with his father’s choices, enjoys swimming with dolphins, and sneaks away to spend time with his girlfriend. The descriptions are vivid; the diction is strong. Here’s just one phrase for example: “He sat down with them on paving stones that glittered with brine and fish scales….” There are even moments of humor. One of the funniest is when birds poop on Miru’s head, just after he’s received the call to save his people. My one complaint is that I felt at times the action moved too fast and kept me at an emotional distance from the characters.

Author Edward Stanton has written eleven books. His fiction, poems, and essays have appeared in publications across the world. He is a professor of literature, and has won grants for his travel, research, and writing. Wide as the Wind is a worthy addition to his literary accomplishments. It has won the 2017 silver Moonbeam Award for Young Adult Fiction and the 2018 silver Feathered Quill Award for Teen Fiction.


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2018

I am focusing this year on other commitments. Once a month, I’ll post reviews of Advanced Reader Copies. Titles will include: Freddy Frogcaster and the Flash Flood by Janice Dean, One Two by Igor Eliseev, Incredible Magic of Being by Kathyrn Erskine, Dragon Grammar Book by Diane Robinson, and Wide as the Wind by Edward Stanton.

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