Monday, April 27, 2009

Mock Printz 2010: The Devil's Paintbox by Victoria Mckernan

Title: The Devil's Paintbox
Author: Victoria McKernan
Starred Reviews: SLJ, PW
Aiden,15, and Maddy, 13, are the last survivors of a community in the plains of Kansas in the summer of 1866. They are literally scraping mud to keep the hunger at bay when Jefferson T. Jackson, a wagon train leader and recruiter for a logging camp, runs into the two kids. Impressed by their pluck and more compassionate than he looks, he agrees to take the kids with him and "sell" Aiden to the Oregon logging camp. It is a rough trip out to Oregon but the people in this wagon train are all people like the two kids who have little or nothing to lose. The journey gives good insight into the lives of these people who settled the west and as their lives intersected with the Native Americans already living there, we see the clash of cultures and resources that resulted. Aiden ends up befriending a boy his age, Tupic, who belongs to the Nez Perce tribe. After the Indians save Aiden's life, he is later forced to help Tupic to save his own tribe from the scourge of Smallpox. Not all the characters make it to Oregon and so the costs of the trip are made clear. I enjoyed this book very much. It really gives you the sense of what it was like going across the country right after the civil war. McKernan does not romanticize the story in any way although there is love and humanity in the book but it is hard to come by. I never knew that the smallpox vaccine was purposely kept from the Indians although the author makes it very clear that at no time were infected blankets purposely given to the Indians, something that was rumored.... This book is written quite well, researched well and holds up as an interesting read. It is one of the best historical fiction books written for teens in a long time. After it ended , I really missed the characters. The author just brings you into this world. I don't know that it will win the Printz but it is a book well worth reading and having in the YA collections.
Susan Rappaport, Rutherford Public Library

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Mock Printz 2010: Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork

Title: Marcelo in the Real World
Author: Francisco X. Stork
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books
ISBN: 9780545054744
Starred review in: Kirkus, School Library Journal, PW

Summary: Marcelo Sandoval, 17, has plans to spend his summer working with the ponies at Paterson, the private school he’s attended since grammar school. He wants to return in the fall for his senior year. Marcelo’s father, Arturo, a successful corporate lawyer in Boston, has other plans for Marcelo, who has an autism spectrum disorder (the closest diagnosis, Asperger’s). Marcelo listens to his own internal music, sometimes slips into third person, his ‘special interest’ is religion in all forms and he likes to know what to expect and what is expected of him. Arturo wants Marcelo to attend a mainstream high school, Oak Ridge, instead of Paterson’s specialized environment. But Marcelo is comfortable at Paterson. Arturo offers a deal. If Marcelo can successfully navigate the “real world” by his father’s standards and work in the mailroom of his law firm for the summer instead of with the ponies, Marcelo will be allowed to return to Paterson and follow his own plans. Apprehensive but determined NOT to attend Oak Ridge, Marcelo reluctantly agrees. The summer internship exceeds expectations (both Marcelo’s and other's) offering new possibilities, plans and relationships. Marcelo, self-aware, highly-intelligent and kind hearted- experiences both the ugly and the beautiful sides of life in the “real world”. He gets caught up in nasty office politics, suffers the attentions of closed-minded, cruel and manipulative individuals and gets an accidental lesson in the shadier areas of litigation. But Marcelo makes a strong connection with co-worker Jasmine and helps another young woman when his father initially refused to. Loyalties, morals and ethics are tested but Marcelo manages to simultaneously stay true to himself and grow. While he adapts to the world around him, Marcelo also affects positive changes.

This is a great character driven novel where the protagonist’s journey isn’t limited to minor character development. It doesn’t suffer from the “complete 180” you sometimes come across. Marcelo’s experience in his father’s much touted “real world” is believable but more than anything, it’s how the “real world” and Marcelo influence one another. This comes across as real…and balanced. (And gratifyingly defies Arturo’s expectations.) Marcelo is more honest and self-aware than most. Despite other people’s preconceived notions of him, Marcelo is also extremely perceptive; whether he reads faces, tones or sees past people’s words and right to their intentions. Stork maintains a dynamic core in Marcelo but gives him the freedom to grow and expand outside his comfort zone and the box other’s put him in. Secondary characters are also susceptible to realistic change and usually surpass stock restrictions (the deplorable Holmes men and their icy assistant are believably slimey and arrogant, Marcelo’s understanding mother Aurora is wonderfully sympathetic and also encouraging). This is especially true of Jasmine, Marcelo’s musically inclined and equally perceptive colleague in the mailroom. She starts off with more professional, private boundaries but opens up to Marcelo and is a true friend. It took one or two chapters for me to become involved in the story, but once Marcelo was ‘parentally bargained’ into the law firm mailroom, I went from interested to invested and other readers will too.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Mock Printz 2010: The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg

Title: The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg
Author: Rodman Philbrick
Publisher: Blue Sky Press
ISBN: 978-0439668187
Starred review in: BL


Homer P. Figg is a liar.

As he would tell you himself, “Telling the truth don’t come easy to me, but I will try”. This explains why his adventures are only “mostly” true. The story is set in the 1860’s. Homer and his brother Harold are orphans living in Pine Swamp, Maine under the dubious care of their uncle, Squinton (Squint) Leach. There is no love lost between the boys and their mean uncle Squint who works them hard and leaves them hungry. In fact, Homer is so hungry that he eats some food intended for the pigs, annoying Squint who tries to strike him. Harold defends Homer and an infuriated Squint sells Harold into the Union Army even though the teen is not yet eighteen.

By the time Homer manages to escape the farm Harold is long gone. He sets out to rescue his brother but doesn’t get very far before stumbling upon two bounty hunters searching for runaway slaves. Upon discovering Homer’s gift for stretching the truth they attempt to force Homer to aid them in their search and instead Homer finds himself an unwilling participant of sorts in the Underground Railroad.

From there Homer embarks on adventure upon adventure, each more outlandish than the one before. From a run in with some con artists, to a stint as the “Amazing Pig Boy” to a daring escape in a runaway hot air balloon, Homer experiences the fantastical. However, no matter the adventure the goal is always the same. Find big brother Harold and save him from the war.


This is a fast paced rollicking adventure that happens to be historical fiction. Even if it’s not a Printz contender it is a worthwhile read for those looking for a story with a likeable character you can’t help but root for just to see what trouble he can get into next. The character at twelve years old was also young and at times his personality seemed even younger. This may be a title more at home in juvenile collections than in young adult collections.
The humor comes in the form of Homer’s strong voice and his penchant for stretching the truth if he thinks it will suit him. Though it does have humor one never forgets that there are serious events happening in the story with the specter of the Civil War looming large in the background.
The author, Rodman Philbrick, doesn’t shy away from conveying the sights and sounds of war when Homer finds himself on the front lines amidst the wounded and the dying. Because Homer’s voice is strong we are able to experience, through him, his horror at what is happening around him and his fear that his brother may be among the fallen.
Homer is a refreshing character in that he is an unabashed storyteller and that is just who he is. There is no grand change where he decides to only tell the truth and despite what he experiences and sees he doesn’t necessarily have a stand on the war.
All he knows and all he cares about is that he wants to be reunited with his big brother and the reader will want this too.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Mock Newbery 2010: The Problem with the Puddles by Kate Feiffer

Title: The Problem with the Puddles
Author: Kate Feiffer
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
ISBN: 978-1416949619
Starred review in: PW


The Puddles are a family with not one, but many problems. However, the biggest problem they face is that Mr. and Mrs. Puddle simply cannot agree. They have “agreed to disagree” and they do so almost constantly. This, in turn, translates to further problems for their children Tom and Baby. For instance, Baby is called Baby by everyone except her father and mother who, when she was born, could not agree on what to call her. Her father calls her Ferdinanda and her mother calls her Emily. Legally, her name is Baby because that is how a frustrated hospital nurse filled out her birth certificate.

For the most part, the “agree to disagree” arrangement is merely another part of the Puddles’ family life. That is until they accidentally leave their two dogs (both named Sally) at their country home when they return to the city. Mr. Puddle hates city life and wishes to return for the dogs to prolong their time in the country. Mrs. Puddle dislikes the country, can’t wait to get back to the city, and insists that they should lose no time in continuing their journey home. She proposes that they call a neighbor who can look after the dogs. Tom and Baby, being the most rational of the family, simply love their dogs and wish to return for them to ensure their safety.

Meanwhile, the Sallys set out to find the Puddles, certain they can sniff out the city as they go. The two dogs have a real adventure and enjoy their journey, until tired paws and insensitivity on the part of each dog causes a rift in their friendship. A series of mishaps, madcap side characters, and some heavy coincidences later, and the situation with the left-behind dogs brings the family closer to seeing eye-to-eye. In the end, the seemingly random plot points, tangents, and character quirks come together to wrap up into a very neat little story.


Initially, I found this book slow going. For the first chapter or so, it seemed like the author was trying so hard to be absurd, it failed to be funny. However, with rave reviews from authors like Sara Pennypacker (Clementine) and Nick Bruel (Bad Kitty), I had to trust that they knew what they were talking about, and they did. While such a book may not have the substance or emotional pull of some of this year’s other starred review books, it is an enjoyable, humorous story about a family with a unique parenting situation. Its originality might be enough to hook those hard-to-please reluctant readers.

Over the course of the story, Feiffer uses her voice as narrator to involve the reader in nontraditional ways by, for example, encouraging the reader to imagine something vividly descriptive without actually naming the object being described. In another instance, she leaves a page text-free to illustrate something being as “shocking” as a page in the middle of a story with no text on it. In the end, while the plot is not exactly predictable, the strength of the novel lies in Feiffer’s creative word play and textual devices.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Mock Newbery 2010: Peace, Locomotion by Jacqueline Woodson

Title: Peace, Locomotion
Author: Jacqueline Woodson
Publisher: Putnam Juvenile
ISBN: 978-0399246555
Starred review in: SLJ


Having survived the fire that claimed his parents, twelve year old Lonnie finds himself settling into life with his new foster family. Separated from his little sister, Lili, he writes lovingly to her of his thoughts and experiences during their time apart. Though he is surrounded by a strong support network of teachers, friends, and foster family, Lonnie’s best outlet for his jumbled emotions is his writing. As an aspiring poet, Lonnie takes comfort in searching for the right words to express the emotional entanglements he faces. Aside from the twin aches caused by the loss of his parents and the separation from his sister, Lonnie struggles to accept the ease with which Lili adapts to her new family and how quickly she is willing to call her foster care giver “Mama.” Further, as his bond to his own foster family strengthens, Lonnie becomes a part of the uncertainty and anxiety a family faces when a son and brother is deployed overseas.

Prior to becoming Lonnie’s foster mother, Miss Edna raised two sons of her own. Her oldest son, Jenkins, is serving in Iraq throughout the first portion of the book. Eventually, Miss Edna receives word that Jenkins has gone missing. The tension and despair on the part of Miss Edna are palpable which translates to fear and confusion for Lonnie. When Jenkins is found and sent home badly wounded, Lonnie is frightened by Jenkins’ condition and unsure of how to approach a “brother” he has never met. The story concludes as Lonnie makes peace with his new concepts of family as he finds his place among people who love him.


As the title suggests, peace is a central theme in this novel. As Lonnie wishes for peace around the world, he also slowly works toward inner peace as he adjusts to the new realities of his life. Gratifying, if somewhat idealized, Lonnie has encountered more in his young life than many will ever have to experience, and yet manages to remain unboundedly optimistic.

Insightful and timely, this novel handles some of the harsher realities of the Iraq War’s casualties with sensitivity and grace. Lonnie is wise and perceptive, while his voice remains believable and compelling. Overall, this story is a tribute to the ever fluid definition of “family.” Additionally, it is important to note that while Peace, Locomotion is a companion volume to Woodson’s Locomotion, this book is capable of standing entirely on its own. In fact, it does so beautifully.