Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Clique Antidote: Shug by Jenny Han

In her first novel author Jenny Han catches Annemarie Wilcox at the very moment that her adolescence begins. As the sun sets on the last day of summer vacation Annemarie (nicknamed Shug for Sugar) eats cherry popsicles with her oldest friend Mark:

"It is the end of a summer afternoon and the sun will be setting soon, our favorite part of the day. We're eating Popsicles, cherry ones. My shirt is sticking to my back, and my hands feel sugary and warm, but my lips are cool. The sun is turning that fiery pink I love, and I turn to Mark the way I always do.

I look at him, really look at him....But today, at this very moment, he is different, and it's not even something I can explain. But I feel it. Boy, do I feel it. On the outside, everything looks the way it always does, but on the inside, it's like some little part of me is waking up."
In her small Southern town, where everybody knows everything about everybody, the world seems to be shifting under Annemarie's feet. Entering seventh grade in junior high, the old group of predictable friends is regrouping into couples. Even her best friend Elaine Kim pairs off, and Annemarie is afraid that she will lose the soulmate that she depends upon to balance her life.

Although she's always been on the fringe of the popular group, Annemarie sees that where everyone sits at lunch becomes the measure of each person's status. She wants Mark to see that she likes him, but instead of showing her feelings, she picks quarrels with him and watches him pair up with another girl. The one boy she intensely dislikes because of his cruel teasing becomes her most loyal defender when she tutors him in English and comes to understand his family situation.

Her beautiful but alcoholic mother becomes more distant from Annemarie and her father, who spends most of his time away on the job. Her big sister Celia is sometimes helpful, as when she helps Annemarie find clothes and a hairdo for the big dance, and sometimes withdrawn from the family as she spends most of her time with her boyfriend. But with all the change, Annemarie begins to see her family and her friends with different eyes. Sometimes difficult and sometimes insightful, Shug becomes aware of the forces behind others' behavior, good and bad, and sees her own feelings more objectively.

In this first novel Shug, Han has written an exquisite picture of the turning point of childhood, when life takes on different colors and different meanings. In adolescence or looking back on it from many years' distance, this book is a wonderful window on one girl's transition. Girls will love it and learn from it.


Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Search This Blog! It's Fast, It's Easy, It's Fun for All!

A comment from Anonymous asked if I could make the posts searchable for convenience in locating books already reviewed. Luckily, our host Blogger/Blogspot has already taken care of the technical end of things for me.

At the top left on the web site's tool bar there is a rounded red B followed by a search line. You can search by book title, keywords (such as cat or middle school or Joey Pigza), or by the simplified subject headings you see at the bottom of each post (along with the date, time, Comments button, etc.) I give every post one or more broad subject headings (e.g., World War II, Family Stories, Fantasy, Dog Stories) and a grade or age range (e.g., Grades K-3, Ages 2-6). Keying in one of these broad subjects or keywords will bring up all the reviews in which those words appear.

A list of recent post titles (which usually include at least one book title) appears on the right margin of the web page. Older posts can be brought up by clicking on the months listed there in the archives.

Thanks to Anonymous for his suggestion. Hope it helps all of you.

Leader of the Clique: The Clique Series by Lisi Harrison

Bound in neo-Preppy plaid covers, these little books are ah-mazingly found on the New York Times best sellers' list. Inquiring minds want to know why, so I've sample the series, and here are some thoughts about The Clique, by Lisi Harrison.

"Uneasy lies the bod that wears the Prada" describes Massie Block, seventh-grade alpha female of a clique which call themselves "The Pretty Committee." Among the well-off and self-obsessed students at Octavian Day School, a milieu closely circumscribed by the Westchester Mall, various resort spas, and the Briarwood boys' soccer field, Massie is the trend leader, even posting what's in and what's out daily on her blog.

Massie and her followers are some tough rich chicks who are continually struggling for standing in the clique while spouting "Gawd," "Ew!" "ah-mazing," "ehmagod" and IM-ing each other constantly. Massie is undeniably beautiful, possessed of so many clothes that one "friend" jokes that her mega-McMansion is built on a landfill of her worn-once and off-cast designer clothes, so rich that she has several life-size Massie mannikins to try out ensembles without mussing her hair, and so pampered that she has her own personal driver. Notwithstanding all that, she is insecure in her position and cruelly cuts off any possible competitor as easily as she obsessively glosses her lips with the Glossip Girl flavor de jour. This crew makes the girls in the Sweet Valley High series look like a bunch of convent novices.

In the first book Massie is forced to deal with Claire Lyons, the seventh-grade daughter of her father's old school chum who moves into the Block's carriage house "temporarily." Massie's parents, Kendra and William, expect Massie to introduce poor sweet Claire into the Octavian Day School crowd, but Massie and her committee humiliate Claire by deriding her so-not-in Keds and splashing red paint in a suggestive location on her beloved white jeans. Claire, however, has her own strengths, including really cute looks and platinum blonde hair, is endowed with a certain ability to attract the Briarwood boys, and gradually works her way into the clique as a permanent (as permanent as anyone in this tenuous group) member of the charmed circle of ODS.

In fact, by the fourth book in the series, Invasion of the Boy Snatchers, "Kuh-laire" teams with Alicia Rivera, the chief rival for Massie's position, to bring Alicia's slutty, catty Spanish cousin Nina literally to her knees. Nina knows how to flaunt her impressive front and wins over The Clique's chosen Briarwood boys, and, Gawd, Massie realizes that in Nina, she has more than met her match. Luckily, Nina has one flaw--she is a incorrigible thief--and the Pretty Committee becomes the Pretty Covertives to unmask Nina's fatal failing publicly at the Valentine's Love Struck Dance. Although Massie and her sometime boyfriend Derrington don't get to share the Cupid Award, the clique members and their Briarwood guys do (almost) share their first kisses.

Why would early teens want to read about a social scene so mean that it would make any intelligent girl want to repeat sixth grade? After all, the publisher's cut line for The Clique series is "The only thing harder than getting in is staying in." Well, the series may have a couple of socially redeeming virtues:

1) Known thine enemy. Harrison does nail the worst characteristics of the mean teen scene spot on! Those people are out there, even in seventh grade, and it's good to know one when you see one.

2) It's probably a parody. Harrison skewers stereotypical rich brat teens expertly and makes sport of their plumage and habitat, manipulating them just as they manipulate each other. For those readers sophisticated enough to pick up on the parody, it's probably cathartic. For those who don't or can't, well, Gawd bless their little Juicy Coutured backsides.

Other wittily titled books in this series include Best Friends for Never (#2), Revenge of the Wannabes, (#3), The Pretty Committee Strikes Back (#5), Dial L for Loser (#6), It's Not Easy Being Mean (#7), and the latest but probably not the last, Sealed with a Diss.


Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Big War: A Boy at War-A Novel of Pearl Harbor by Harry Mazer

Fourteen-year-old Navy kid Adam Pelko ignores his father's xenophobic order to avoid his nisei school friends Davi Mori and Martin Kahahawai and heads out with them for a pre-dawn fishing trip in the waters of Pearl Harbor. The date is December 7, 1941.

As the sun rises above the ocean, a wave of aircraft begin to strafe and bomb the American fleet anchored there, including the Arizona, where Adam's father is on duty. As the horrified boys recognize the planes as Japanese, their rowboat is strafed and Adam slightly wounded. Struggling back into the boat, he finally locates his Japanese-American friends and gets them to shore. In the confusion onshore, Adam is mistaken for an off-duty sailor and sent aboard a launch to help rescue crew from the burning ships. Hoping to find his own father, Adam complies and spends the rest of the daylight hours hauling in burned and dying sailors.

Back home, Adam waits with his family for days, hoping for good news about his father and fearing a Japanese invasion. When he steals away from home to check on Davi and Martin, Adam finds Davi bitter at the sudden arrest of his father and the overt hatred against Japanese-Americans he has met in the days after the attack. When Adam's father is declared missing in action, the family is hurriedly ordered aboard ship for evacuation to the mainland, casting their leis into the sea opposite Diamond Head, pledging their hope to return.

Mazer's A Boy at War: A Novel of Pearl Harbor describes the scene of the attack on Pearl Harbor historically, factually, and yet emotionally through the realistic voice of a fourteen-year-old boy who watches his father's ship bombed and sinking in Pearl Harbor. The immediate post-attack hatred of the native Japanese-Americans is again hinted at through the relationship of Adam, nicknamed "haole boy," and Davi Mori, whose new friendship is threatened by the events of that fatal day. This slim novel is a great way for young readers to understand the sudden and almost unbelievable events of that day which changed the world.

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Are We There Yet?: Yay! by Emily Rodda

We're going to Crazy Family Fun World. YAY!
I feel car sick. OH!
So I get to sit in front. YAY!
Jason says I'm a wimp. OH!
Then Jason gets car sick. YAY!
On the food. OH!
But we can get more at Crazy Family Fun World. YAY!

We've all been there. Uncle Todd and Grandma, Mom and Dad, Big Brother and Little Brother, picnic food and a long ride in the van, ready for a day at the theme park. Yay!

So begins Emily Rodda's hilarious tale of family fun in the sun, complete with a freckled happy-faced kid for whom places like Crazy Family Fun World were made. Uncle Todd freaks out on the Gripper, Dad freaks out on the Monster Train, and Mum calls it quits on the Giant Wheel. Big brother Jason gets lost in the Mirror Maze and Grandma goes in to find him, and... you guessed it, she freaks out in there, losing her dentures in front of the multiplying mirrors.

While the rest of the family goes in to rescue Grandma and Jason, the kid brother rides all the rides by himself. Yay! Yay! Yay! When the family finally staggers out of the Maze, they're too woozy to eat, so the kid eats all the ice cream. When it's time to leave and Dad can't find the car keys, the kid cheerfully does all the rides all over again while they search! Yay!

Yay! is great fun to read aloud, especially if you can do the "OH!" refrain with the proper inflection, somewhere between a whimper and a whine! Don't worry about the "Yay:" the kids will be doing that one on their own--with great verve!

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Saturday, May 26, 2007

Play to Your Strengths: Yes We Can by Sam McBratney

Sam McBratney, author of the best-selling Guess How Much I Love You?, has a soon-to-be published story for preschoolers, Yes We Can!, with another positive theme.

In this story Little Roo, Country Mouse, and Quacker Duck are having a great time piling up a mountain of leaves, when Little Roo challenges his friend Quacker Duck to jump over a big, big log. High-jumping is not exactly Quacker's strong suit, and her sally is a big, big flop. Grumpy because her two friends laugh at her landing, Duck challenges Country Mouse to float on a puddle. Gamely, Mouse tries and winds up wet and soggy. Angry, Country Mouse dares Little Roo, "You can't catch your own tail!" When he fails the tail test as expected, Roo joins his friends in chagrin.

When Little Roo's mother appears, she sizes up the situation immediately and points out that "No one likes to be laughed at! Show what you CAN do!"

Little Roo sails over the big log with aplomb; Quacker Duck floats majestically on the puddle; and Country Mouse catches his own tail with ease. "There now," said Roo's mother, "Can we all be friends again?"

And all three answer, "YES WE CAN!"


Friday, May 25, 2007

The Big War: A Pocket Full of Seeds by Marilyn Sachs

As Nicole Nieman walks home for lunch, her thoughts are with her friend Francoise, who had fled during the night for fear of being picked up by the Nazi soldiers rounding up Jews. Nicole enters her home to find it empty, a cut-glass pitcher broken on the floor, and her parents' room ransacked. A neighbor fearfully approaches.

"Nicole," said Mme. Barras, "you have to get away. You can't stay here. They were looking for you, too. How lucky you were that you were not home. But go now! Don't stay! They are coming back!"

At first the Niemans believe that the Germans, who occupy all but the southern part of France, will not come to Aix-le-Bains, in theory under the control of the Italian forces after the invasion of France. Nevertheless, a steady stream of Jewish refugees passes through on the way to the Swiss border, and her parents and other members of the Resistance give them temporary shelter in their homes. But when the Italians surrender to the American forces, the Nazis move ever closer and their arrest of French Jews escalates, even in Aix-le-Bains. Now Mama and Papa and little Jacqueline have been taken and Nicole is on her own.

Grabbing her bike, Nicole rides into the countryside to ask for help with a family who had cared for her when her parents were working abroad, but although her French friends kindly give her food and temporary refuge, all are too afraid of the Germans to let her stay. With no place left to turn, under cover of night Nicole goes back to her school to sleep fitfully in the entryway. Amazingly, the Headmistress Mme. LeGrand, a suspected German sympathizer, takes her in and hides her among her boarding school students with falsified papers. Grateful, but still in despair, Nicole is moved to turn herself in to the Germans in the hope of being reunited with her parents. Then a woman released by the Nazis gives her a message from her mother:
"Your mother said that she loves you very much and has faith that you will always do the right thing."

"She said that?"

"Yes, and there was one more thing.... That you must not get caught. She said that whatever suffering lies ahead for them, she and your father could bear up as long as they knew you were safe. She said knowing that you were safe would keep them going, and that they would come back to you as soon as they could."

Marilyn Sachs' A Pocket Full of Seeds offers a snapshot of one Jewish family and their struggle to remain free as the tide of war turns. Many are taken and some are lost, but hope, like a pocket full of seeds in winter, lives within those who survive.

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Thursday, May 24, 2007

The Big War: The Upstairs Room by Johanna Reiss

"Okay, Okay." Dientje ran over to us. "They're here. They're here!" She closed up the hiding place with the piece of wood. We heard her lower the shelf and close the closet door. We heard her footsteps as she ran down the stairs.

Footsteps. Loud ones. Boots. Coming up the stairs. Sini put her arms around me and pushed my head against her shoulder.

Loud voices, Ugly ones. Furniture being moved. And Opoe's protesting voice. The closet door was thrown open. Hands fumbled on the shelves. Sini was trembling.... I no longer breathed through my nose. Breathing through my mouth made less noise.

Annie and her older sister Sini de Leeuw go into hiding in 1942 as the Germans begin to round up Dutch Jews for labor and death camps. The girls are placed by the Resistance with an seemingly ordinary Dutch farm family, the plain-spoken Johan Oosterveld, who, along with his wife Dientje and mother Opoe, are the real heroes of this autobiographical account which eerily parallels the experiences chronicled in Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl. Unlike Anne Frank, Annie's story has the happy difference that author Johanna Reiss lives to write, as an adult, the gripping tale of her three years in hiding, a time of both mind-numbing boredom and incredible terror as the Nazis one by one ferret out Jews hidden nearby by the Resistance.

As Reiss writes, Annie's voice is that of a ten-year-old, separated from all but one sister, longing to feel the sun on her face and run free, and yet learning from smuggled Resistance newspapers of the gas chambers and slave labor camps which will be her fate if she is discovered. At times, both girls despair, feeling that capture and death may be better than their virtual imprisonment in the upstairs room. Ultimately it is the loving kindness and courage of the Oostervelds and other families who risk their lives to hide them which give the de Leeuw girls strength to hold out until their liberation in the spring of 1945. A poignant afterword describes Reiss's return visit to the Oostervelds with her own two young daughters, as she shows them how she climbed into the hiding place behind the false closet when the Germans searched the upstairs room.

The Upstairs Room was named a Newbery Honor Book and is followed by The Journey Back: Sequel to the Newbery Honor Book The Upstairs Room which documents with equal depth and honesty the immediate postwar years of the reunited de Leeuw family.

For mature young readers, these two memoirs provide a way to experience firsthand what this momentous period in history was like with someone whose skillful writing puts the reader there with her in the upstairs room.

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Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Double Talk for Tots: The Bilingual Edge by Kendall King and Alison Mackey

In the past few years it's become a bilingual experience to take a stroll through Sears or WalMart. No longer can we wait until the last few years of public education to initiate learning a second language. In the soon-to-be-published The Bilingual Edge: Why, When, and How to Teach Your Child a Second Language, authors Kendall King and Alison Mackey promise "to help parents select the language that will give their child the most benefit, find materials and programs that will assist the child in achieving fluency, and identify and use the family's unique traits to maximize learning."

That's a tall order for busy modern parents. Quite a few have had no real second language experience, and the rest of us may have only a shaky memory of our high school French or Spanish classes. King and Mackey assert that their book will help even parents with no second language experience to help their very young children become fluent. Both authors are mothers and professors at Georgetown University with backgrounds in research and writing about linguistics and bilingual education and should be knowledgable in methodology.

I'll take a look at this book after it is published on July 1 and report back on their theory and methodology.


Tuesday, May 22, 2007

How Dangerous? The Dangerous Book for Boys

Best seller in the U.K. and rising fast on the U. S. charts, The Dangerous Book for Boys has obviously filled a niche in a market that no one else knew was there! The book is marketed as an alternative to excessive parental overprotection, particularly for boys, who are said to be drawn to risk and danger like moths to the flame!

In actuality, the book doesn't feature a lot in the way of risky business. It covers well such time-honored childhood staples as sections on knot-tying, codes and ciphers, building tree houses, making paper airplanes, reading semaphore symbols, using sign language, fishing and trapping, and various sports. In my school library, I had multiple books on each of these subjects (not to mention Indian sign language and symbols, flying model rockets, building forts, rifles and hunting, animal tracks, hobo symbols, electric motors, camping and rock climbing, you name it!) and they were wildly popular, so the material included in The Dangerous Book for Boys has never really gone away.

What this title has going for it is an idea whose time has come (conveniently bound under one cover) and a tantalizing title. It also has great diagrams, maps, drawings, and lively accounts of historical heroic deeds. Every library and home with kids really should have a copy. I've long been of the opinion that (when they're not reading) kids need to go outside and do stuff, and I'm glad that dads are acting on that premise with the help of this book.

Unfortunately, when you look for similar books for girls, there is a paucity of titles on outdoor activities. There are gazillions of books on arts and crafts, guides to decorating your room, managing your relationships or your money, applying makeup, and coordinating your ensemble, but except for a few compendiums written early in the last century, there is not much on unorganized sports and games for girls.

One intriguing title that offers an incentive for vigorous physical activities is The Games Black Girls Play: Learning the Ropes from Double-Dutch to Hip-Hop by Kyra Gaunt. Ethnomusicologist Gaunt describes and traces the historical roots of outdoor activities such as jump rope games and songs, hand-clapping games, cheer leading chants, and other activities for girls. You don't have to be African-American to jump double-Dutch or clap out Mary Mack, Mack, Mack, and it's great to have these vigorous girl games documented for posterity.

One more general title which offers some physical activities aimed at girls is Laura Cornell's Here's How (American Girl Library), which shows girls how to throw a football and do the hula, as well as more sedate activities like braiding hair and doing magic tricks. The market is wide open for a Dangerous Book for Girls to get them up and out there, or (see my post of March 11, 2008) just give them a copy of Swallows and Amazons to show "girls just want to have fun."

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Monday, May 21, 2007

The Girl with Moxie: Roxie and the Hooligans

"DO NOT PANIC!" is the theme of Lord Thistlebottom's Book of Pitfalls and How to Survive Them, and Roxie Warbler (part Roald Dahl's Matilda and part Astrid Lindgren's Pippi Longstocking) has memorized the rest of the great Thistlebottom's words just in case! Roxie idolizes her adventuring Uncle Dangerfoot, who tells outrageous tales of his exploits with the daredevil author, and yearns to emulate his fearlessness in the face of danger. To tell the truth, though, she is scared spitless by the terror of Public School 37, Helvetia Hagus and her gang of hooligans.

When, in her morning ritual, Helvetia starts teasing Roxie about her jug-handle ears and chasing her around the playground, Roxie has to remind herself, "Do not panic." Roxie, with the hooligans in hot pursuit, tries to reach the sanctuary of the school by jumping from a dumpster into an open classroom window, and all land in the gooey garbage. Before they can extricate themselves, a garbage truck scoops up the dumpster and speedily deposits them on a garbage barge headed down the coast.

With Helvetia and the hooligans splashing along behind, Roxie swims for the nearest shore, where she soon discovers that they are stuck on the island with two bank robbers on the lam. Plucky Roxie steals water and food from the felons for herself and the hooligans, but when the crooks discover their supplies have been pilfered, they scour the island for the kids, knives in hand.

Roxie uses most of Thistlebottom's handy hints for avoiding pitfalls, earning the loyalty of her former enemies, and lays down an emergency marker on the beach which brings Uncle Dangerfoot and the intrepid Lord Thistlebottom to their rescue via helicopter. Roxie is the center of attention at last as the family and the reformed hooligans celebrate her courage and derring-do.

At only 116 pages, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor's Roxie and the Hooligans is a easy, breezy read. Roxie's inventiveness and pluck make for a fast and funny heroine who finishes off the felons and turns the school bullies into repentant buddies to boot! You go, girl!

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Sunday, May 20, 2007

Happy Feet! Happy Birthday, Jamela!, by Niki Daly

Jamela's birthday party is coming, and Mama buys her a beautiful party dress, but when it comes to new shoes, Mama passes up the sparkly white Princess Shoes with little white satin bows and insists on a pair of sensible black school shoes instead!

Alone in her room, Jamela wished that, somehow, when she opened the shoe box, she'd find the Princess Shoes inside. But when she looked, a pair of strong black school shoes lay there like heavy bricks. They smelled nice--but they could never, ever be birthday girl shoes.... They needed sparkle and glitter.

In Happy Birthday, Jamela! Niki Daly's ever resourceful heroine comes up with a solution to her shoe problem. Artfully, Jamela pulls out her school glue and some glittery beads and bits and transforms those clunky shoes into shiny dancing shoes fit for a princess.

Mama and Grandma Gogo are not pleased with Jamela's creations. In fact, Mama is so angry that Gogo suggests that Jamela go outside and give Mama time to cool down. Luckily, when Jamela's artistic neighbor Lily sees her fabulous footwear, she invites Jamela to help her decorate more shoes to sell in the market. The shoes are a hit, and Lily shares her profit with her partner Jamela.

When Jamela takes the money home to Mama, Mama reciprocates by buying her a new pair of school shoes and--as a surprise, Jamela unwraps a beautiful pair of Princess Shoes at her birthday party!

Jamela is a child whose imagination and spunky good sense shine through as brightly as her special shoes in Daly's delightful water color illustrations. The bright and cheerful South African setting adds an exotic note to the story, but the importance of finding just the right shoes for a special occasion is universal for little, and not so little, girls.

Earlier books about Jamela include Jamela's Dress, What's Cooking, Jamela? (a really unusual story in which the chicken slated to be their Christmas dinner becomes Jamela's special guest), and Where's Jamela?.


Saturday, May 19, 2007

Nosh-Out at Dog City: Ten-Gallon Bart

Ten-Gallon Bart is a rip-roarin', ripoff spoof of early television Westerns, illustrated with textually inviting collages in double-page spreads which suggest the wide-open spaces.

Ten-Gallon Bart is the shaggy dog sheriff of Dog City, "brave, courageous, and bold," but he's serving his last day of duty when the morning paper, "The Daily Muzzle," flashes word that Billy the Kid, a goat with an outlaw appetite, is headed for town. Miss Kitty (a cat, natch), piggy deputies Wyatt Burp and Wild Bill Hiccup, Pixie and Dixie (chicks), and Buffalo Gal (some sort of bovine) beg Bart to protect their pansies from the omnivorous outlaw, but when "Baa-aa-aa-aa-d Billy" begins to toss down the town, Bart is the bold leader who finally bests the beast by jumping astride and taking a ride 'til Billy is plumb saddle broke!

Dust flies, and Billy coughs up all the contraband he's gobbled. When the dust settles, Billy is reformed, Miss Kitty, no scaredy cat, is rewarded with the job of sheriff, and Bart retires with a new fishing pole. Peaceful Dog City is now the scene of Friday night fish fries, and Billy the Kid dutifully does the dishes.

The TV Western allusions will probably amuse the grizzled older cowhand readers more than their pint-sized buckaroo listeners, but that's all to the good, since those little greenhorns are sure to want to see and hear this gloriously silly story over and over again.

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Friday, May 18, 2007

The Making of a Wizard II: Wizard's Hall by Jane Yolen

A young eleven-year-old, with green eyes and perennially disheveled hair, finds himself precipitously propelled into student life at a renowned school of wizardry over which hangs a sombre and threatening miasma. Although the student appears to have less than stellar aptitude for spells, transformations, and divinations, he is welcomed by the troubled faculty as the long-awaited novice whose powers are not so much those of an "enchanter" as those of an "enhancer," one who is destined to play a heroic role at the venerable school.

The young novice is befriended and supported by an engaging group of first-year students, especially an intrepid girl with unusual hair and a boy who is the loyal best friend who sustains the novice's courage. Looming over the life of the school is the malevolent power of a former magister, a professor who has embraced the evil powers inherent in wizardry, drawing forth the deepest and darkest passions of the magical community and turning them into an evil force destined to consume them and the outside world as well.

Sound familiar? Right! That is the basic structure of the Harry Potter series, laid out engagingly, wittily, and poetically by Jane Yolen almost a decade before Harry made his debut in the muggle world. This is not to say that J. K. Rowling is a plagiarist. The formula is a time-honored one, combining as it does the camaraderie of the school story with the suspense and mystery of the fantasy story.

Yolen's main character is Thornmallow, nee Henry, whose new name means "prickly on the outside, squishy on the inside." Thornmallow is hurried off by his "Ma" to Wizard's Hall as soon as he mentions a possible interest in wizardry.

"But what if I have no talent for it, Ma?" Henry had asked, somewhat sensibly and not a little nervous that she was packing him off so quickly.
"Talent don't matter," she'd said, closing his bag. "I didn't know I had any talent for mothering until you came along!...It only matters that you try."

Good advice. Henry sets off to walk to Wizard's Hall and arrives to a warm welcome as the 113th student, a number which the magisters seem to find strangely propitious. Renamed Thornmallow, the dubious student bungles through his first days of classes, producing magic only serendipitously, as he becomes more and more aware of a vague but overwhelming threat to the community. A former teacher, Master Nettle, is now the creator of a compendium of evil named The Beast, quilted together from the darkest impulses drawn from those who lose body and soul in the process. Magister Hickory convinces Thornmallow of his mission, rooted in his willingness to try, to somehow stop Nettle and his Beast from consuming the school and even "all of the Dales."

At the final scene Thornmallow watches the faculty and almost all of his classmates march like automata to be consumed by the swollen and evil Beast. When only Thornmallow and friends Tansy and Will remain, Thornmallow courageously gives it one last try and recites a spell recalled from remnants of his hurried research, disempowering Master Nettle by the secret knowledge of his name in the best wizardly tradition.

In scope and depth, of course, Jane Yolen's Wizard's Hall is Harry Potter Lite, but in this slender volume Yolen gives up nothing to Rowling in skillful writing, wit, mystery, and an engaging setting. For young readers who aren't ready to put forth into the ocean that is the Hogwarts cycle, Wizard's Hall is a short and sweet sail upon a pleasant inland sea.

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Thursday, May 17, 2007

Feedback: ADHD--Joey Pigza series and Only a Mother Could Love Him

Thanks to those of you who commented on my post of May 4, reviewing the three books of the Joey Pigza series by Jack Gantos, and my post of May 10 citing the memoir by Benjamin Polis, Only a Mother Could Love Him.

Reader Shane referred us to his web site at, which he started with his own son in mind. If you have an interest in the general area of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and learning disorders in general, check it out. On his site Shane cites a series of adventure novels featuring a dyslexic and ADHD main character, Percy Jackson and the Olympians by author Rick Riordan. All three books in the series received very good reviews (*starred review by School Library Journal for Book I, The Lightning Thief.)

Shane also mentioned that his son had enjoyed the Joey Pigza books and found them helpful. A couple of other fiction books which deal empathetically but realistically with the subject are Susan Shreve's Trout and Me and for slightly younger readers The Flunking of Joshua T. Bates. Both books highlight the strengths as well as the difficulties of two elementary school students who are labelled as "learning disabled" or "ADHD." Both stories are optimistic, showing boys who gain understanding of their own problems and learn to develop a measure of control over them.