Allison's Book Bag

Archive for the ‘Special Needs’ Category

From Bibi Belford comes Another D for DeeDee, a heart-warming middle school novel. DeeDee has a lot to learn about friendship but is a sympathetic character with a good heart. Similarly, her family struggles without the Dad but make endearing attempts to stay united as a family. Belford draws on real-life situations she encountered as a teacher to create a funny and serious story that will resonate with readers.

DeeDee is the type of misfit kid I have long wanted to create. Trust doesn’t come easy for DeeDee. She’ll lie rather than face embarrassment. She’ll steal rather than ask for help. She’ll even betray a friend, rather than risk losing her status. If you met DeeDee in person, you’d probably find it hard to like her. But deep down, DeeDee isn’t a bad person. She’s just learned to be tough, because her learning disability and her Mexican background have set her apart. Belford does an incredible job of giving us insight into DeeDee’s heart, where we see her vulnerabilities. As with many “bad kids,” DeeDee needs the right circumstances to help her change. Number one is being diagnosed with diabetes, which requires her to be more honest with herself and others if she’s going to stay healthy. Number two change is a new neighbor. River offers to teach her how to skateboard and to help find her dad, but their friendship is tested when River starts attending DeeDee’s school. DeeDee begins to realize what is important to her, and that she must change if she wants to hold onto family and friends. Although DeeDee’s initial attempts to change are awkward and sometimes half-hearted, her true potential eventually radiates, and she’s a character that we can all root for to succeed. My one reservation is that by resolving all of DeeDee’s dilemmas in the conclusion, Belford has sacrificed a little bit of realism for the sake of a feel-good novel.

As with her first novel, Belford tackles many issues that impact young people. Through an entertaining story, she subtlety educates readers about the life of a diabetic. Belford credits two girls for increasing her own awareness. One day Belford passed out jellybeans as a reward to students who had completed assignments, only to discover that one of her students couldn’t eat sweets. A girl who loved Belford’s first book allowed the author to accompany her on visits to monitor her diabetes. Through the complex character of River, readers are introduced to the world of the hard of hearing students. A fellow teacher not only provided her with facts, but also gave feedback on her rough drafts of Another D for DeeDee. In addition, Belford had many discussions with a college senior who relies on a wheelchair for mobility and advocates for students with disabilities. Finally, Belford teaches migrant students. She also had a chance to talk with a researcher of immigration issues. Stories give us a glimpse into worlds that we may not otherwise experience. My wish for a future novel is that Belford would give recognition to documented immigrants; their road to citizenship can be hard for them too.

Bibi Belford has a gift for writing stories about characters who make bad decisions but learn from them how to love. She also the heart of an advocate and knows the power of words to give voice to issues. I look forward to future novels from this outstanding author.

Talon Come Fly With Me by Gigi Sedlmayer is a quiet adventure about a young girl with special needs who befriends two mated condors. While the story suffers from a weak plot and simple writing, it’s also a heartwarming and informative one.

Nine-year-old Matica has a growth handicap that traps her inside a body the size of a two-year-old. It also causes her to be rejected by the residents in the remote village of Peru where she lives with her brother and Australian missionaries. Size however does not impact how she’s viewed by a local mating pair of condors. After a year of her watching them, Matica attempts to meet them face to face. She does this by visiting them in the same place day after day, until one of them becomes curious and flies near her. After this, she brings them dead lizards to eat. As a way of the male bird saying thank you, he flies up to her and allows himself to be touched.

Seldmayer could have easily filled a book with just the above drama, but instead strips her narrative to a few bare-boned chapters. She does the same disservice to Matica’s encounters with poachers, largely because Sedlmayer fails to integrate any tension, conflict, or surprise twists. Instead she relies heavily on a passive narrative laden with dialog. While this simplistic style might make the story more palpable for reluctant readers, it unfortunately left me at times bored.

After Matica has the opportunity to touch a male condor, her relationship expands to include his mate. When poachers attempt to steal a condor egg, the condor couple turn to Matica for help. She carries the egg home with her, where she keeps it warm. Every day the condors check with her to see if their baby has hatched. When the baby is finally born, Matica feeds it, cleans it, and even helps it to learn to fly. The second half of Talon Come Fly With Me is dedicated to Matica’s relationship with the baby condor, and here’s where Seldmayer’s admiration for these unique birds shines through.

Although Matica is a sympathetic character, a story from the viewpoint of the condors alone may have resulted in a stronger emotional connection for me. The condor family are the stars, and through Seldmayer’s detailed portrayal of them, I learned about their idiosyncrasies and their diminishing numbers. Talon Come Fly With Me is a pleasant way to launch one’s reading of nature books, after which one should turn to literary giants of the genre such as Jean Craighead George.

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.

The second half of December I treated myself to three dog cozy mysteries. All three are titles my husband bought for me at a library book sale. The first is by an author (David Rosenfelt) whom I know about through the animal rescue world, while the others are by authors with four or five-star ratings at Cozy Mystery List.

My interest in the Andy Carpenter mysteries by David Rosenfelt comes from my having read his funny account of the start of a dog rescue foundation. The series contains sixteen titles to date and features a reluctant attorney who is most likely to be persuaded to take a case when a dog is somehow involved. In Dog Tags, the eighth book in the series, a German Shepherd police dog witnesses a murder. If his owner, an Iraq war vet and cop-turned thief, is convicted of the crime, the dog could be euthanized. Dog Tags didn’t fit my perception of a cozy mystery, which supposedly don’t focus on violence and contains bloodless murders that take place off stage. Instead Dog Tags revolves around a murder case with roots in Iraq, payoffs, hit men, and even a possible national security threat. Indeed, some reviewers have noted that Dog Tales is darker than earlier Andy Carpenter titles. What helps lighten the intensity of the plot is Andy’s sarcastic style, adamant opposition to danger, and obvious love of his wife and dog. I also enjoyed the quirky characters including Pete who is always calling in a favor, Marcus who eats as if there were no tomorrow, and Hike who puts pessimists to shame. Dogs are front and center, with one being on trial and the other being Carpenter’s own pet. Dog training and the building of trust are also integrated into the mystery.

The Chet and Bernie mysteries by Spencer Quinn have the most unusual quality of being narrated by a dog. To date, the series contains eight regular novels and four behind-the-scenes books. In Thereby Hangs a Tail, the second book in the series, Chet and Bernie are hired to investigate threats against the unlikely target of a pampered show dog named Princess. Although the series reads more like a thriller than a cozy mystery, I’ve become a fan due to the style, characters, and the location. More than any other animal book, thanks to his unique style, Quinn had me wondering what goes on in the mind of my dog or for that matter any dog. As a canine partner, he likes to puzzle out what scents mean for the case. He’ll also wag his tail, growl, and bark to turn Bernie onto clues. And he enjoys helping Bernie tackle criminals. At the same time, he’ll also interpret phrases so literally that conversation can be quickly lost on him. He’ll also scavenge places for food and will rarely turn down food—no matter what it’s source. Bernie is an equally multi-layered character. He makes bad financial investments, and proves a tough guy with criminals, but also has a soft heart for his dog and the woman he loves. Thereby Hangs a Tail takes place in remote areas in Arizona, well-suiting it to the cozy mystery genre.

The Rachel Alexander and Dash mysteries by Carol Lea Benjamin is my only selection by a female author. The series contains nine titles to date and features a female detective and her pit bull. In The Wrong Dog, the fifth book in the series, Sophie Gordon hires Rachel because her cloned dog does not possess the skills of a service dog as was promised to her. While Rachel is searching for the Side-by-Side agency that led Sophie astray, she’s thrown into a deeper mystery when Sophie is killed. I found the first two chapters, wherein Sophie recounts her story to Rachel, somewhat confusing and dull. After that, the narrative improves. I enjoyed how the plot unfolded, with Rachel finding herself in more and more danger as she digs deeper into Sophie’s murder. I also appreciated Rachel’s attempts to find Sophie’s two service dogs a home. Although the dogs (and an iguana!) are often in the background, they’re still prevalent in the story. The dogs like playing in the dog park and accompanying Rachel on her sleuthing expeditions.

Now that I have read six animal cozy mysteries, I’m curious about trends. Are dog mysteries normally darker, written by men, and starring male leads? Are cat mysteries normally lighter, written by ladies, and starring female leads? I’d also welcome reader recommendations! For those of you who are fans of animal mystery cozies, who are your favorite authors and why?


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