Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Family Secrets: Hidden Roots by Joseph Bruchac

Eleven-year-old Howard Camp knows that there is some secret behind his mother's evasive answers, his hard-working father's anger and physical abuse, and the way his father avoids "Uncle Louis," a grizzled old woodsman said to be a former handiman for his deceased grandparents. Still, Uncle Louis comes to them, always when his father is working, to pick berries or do some of the hard chores, or to take Howard to watch a sunrise from a mountain top.

When his father's hand is mangled rescuing a green employee from a machine at the mill, even harder times come to Howard and his mother. With winter coming Uncle Louis comes to stay, chopping wood for their stove and being with Howard while his mom works part time in town. As Howard grows through his sixth grade year, he no longer can put off the questions about his family's strange and reclusive ways. At last Louis takes Howard apart and shows him a yellowed document which begins to explain his parents' long kept secret and reveals that he is in truth his mother's father.

Joseph Bruchac sets Hidden Roots in the mountains of upstate New York to recount the story of the Abenaki Indians of nearby Vermont, the victims of state-sponsored ethnic cleansing beginning in 1931, a time in which forced sterilization threatened their extinction. In this period many of the Abenaki moved out of Vermont, sometimes giving their children to be raised by white families, and hid their Native American origins from their neighbors. This fictional account shows how the stress of this exodus and the fear of being revealed as Indian took its toll on families, although some, like the fictional Camps, found the strength to hold together and find pride in their roots.


Monday, July 30, 2007

The Big War: The Art of Keeping Cool by Janet Taylor Lisle

As German submarines prowl below the ocean surface just off the Rhode Island coast, Robert struggles to uncover the secrets hidden beneath the surface of his extended family's past.

When his father is sent to England as a bomber pilot in early 1942, Robert's mother moves him and his little sister from their Ohio farm to the Rhode Island coast to be near his father's parents and brother. For the first time Robert meets his gruff and seemingly resentful grandfather, his kind but browbeaten grandmother, and his strange artistic cousin, Elliot. Elliot is silent and withdrawn with the family but reveals to Robert his talent for amazingly realistic drawings. The two boys becomes friends of a sort, united in their interest in the war, particularly the giant artillery guns being dug in at a nearby coastal fort.

While scouting out the secured gun emplacements, the two boys observe a German-born painter slipping through a slit in the security fence with binoculars and a notebook, and Elliot reveals that he has been invited by this famous artist, Abel Hoffman, to visit his studio in the woods and discuss his art. At Robert's urging, Elliot agrees to go, and the two boys visit Hoffman's studio, watch as he works, and listen to the story of his persecution as an expressionist artist under Hitler's Nazi regime.

When a test firing of the 16-inch guns is scheduled, Robert and his little sister slip through the hidden opening in the security fence to watch, and as the giant artillery pieces roar, they see Hoffman fleeing the military police. When caught by the MP's, Robert reluctantly admits that he saw Hoffman inside the military reservation. The townspeople turn on Hoffman and beat him severely, and as German submarines continue to sink freighters just off their coast, they eventually hold Hoffman responsible and burn his studio and paintings, causing his death in the flames.

Stunned by Hoffman's unjust death and worried over the downing of his father's bomber over France, Robert feels compelled to unearth the buried enmity within his own family, a story of near murderous conflict between Robert's grandfather and his own father which Elliot reluctantly reveals. Robert finally understands his father's estrangement from his parents and the covenant of silence which has kept the guilty secret for so long. The big war, the senseless death of an innocent artist, and the revelation of the long-ago conflict between father and son, all become part of Robert's coming of age in his fourteenth summer.

Newbery author Janet Taylor Lisle's The Art of Keeping Cool uses World War II not just as its background, but almost as a metaphor for the grim undercurrent of violence in human life. Just as the boys search the ocean for a sighting of a German U-boat beneath the waves, Robert finds the dark side of the human heart beneath the quiet surface of his town and his own family.

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Sunday, July 29, 2007

Cinematizing the Novel for Reluctant Readers: Kidnap Kids by Todd Strasser

If you know a kid whose wedded to the tube, watching sitcoms and videos aimed at young audiences but reluctant to pick up a book, have I got an author for you! Todd Strasser is a talented writer who has walked away with children's choice awards (where actual young readers do the voting) in New York, Indiana, Wyoming, Tennessee, Kansas, Rhode Island, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania, as well as awards from the adult industry (American Library Association, International Reading Association, New York City Library, to name a few). Strasser's books as literature are well crafted, but have the eerie sense of being novels written as screen plays or television scripts.

Case in point: Strasser's Kidnap Kids begins with two boys doing the old ice water bucket trick on their evil Swedish nanny, who angrily stalks out the door just as the boys' frazzled lawyer mom returns from working late. Twelve-year-old Steven and little brother Benjamin haven't seen much of their high-profile parents in months, as their dad roams the Pacific rim for a communications megacorporation and their mom is lead prosecutor for a front-page trial of a homegrown terrorist militia. After losing five nannies in a month, the only supervision their mom Megan Marks can come up with at midnight is Dewey, a home security guard, a young ne'er-do-well who lets the kids skip regular meals, baths, and tooth brushing, and enjoy the use of their swanky home as an opportunity for extreme wall climbing practice.

Desperate for their attention, Steven and Benjy hatch a plot to "borrow" Dewey's handcuffs and security gear to kidnap their parents, and confront them with their need for some kind of home life. This plot is made easier by the parents' sudden purchase of a remote vacation home, and when Mom and Dad turn the promised quality-time weekend into a 48-hour workathon, the kids go through with the plot, tossing their parents cellphones, Blackberries, and car keys, and begin serious negotiations for a change.

Then on a trip to the nearby country store, Steven overhears a couple of suspicious-looking guys asking about their parents' whereabouts and realizes that the "Nut Bombers" are there to halt the trial by killing his mom. Steven calls 911, but can only give them the name of the river near the house as their location. Back at the house Steven urges his parents to flee into the woods just as the militia members approach. When the family tries to cross the river to call for help from the same little store, they discover that the bridge is already in the hands of the terrorists.

At this point, Steven's cool head and Benjy's extraordinary climbing skills, honed on the family's staircase, finally get the boys and their mom across the river via the bridge's underside. The final chase scene features Megan Marks stealing the terrorists' truck and fighting off a militia member with her high-heeled shoe just as the local police arrive on the scene. As you would expect, the parents then recognize their kids' real needs and vow to change their own workaholic ways.

" your real mother is going to tell you both to finish your milk and make sure you brush your teeth before you go to school this morning," said Mom.

"Aw, Mom, do we have to?" Benjy whined.

"Hey," Mom said with a smile, "no complaining. You wanted your real mother. Now you got her!" [FADEOUT/RUN CREDITS]

Equally cinematographic and enticing for the able but reluctant reader are the books in Strasser's Help! I'm Trapped series, beginning with Help! I'm Trapped in My Teacher's Body, in which a science project gone terribly wrong gives Josh a chance to experience life and learning from the other side of the teacher's desk. Great literature these books are not, but great fun they are for an easy read that's more complex and engaging than the typical mindless kids' show or movie.

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Saturday, July 28, 2007

Yo Ho, Blow the Man Down: Walter the Farting Dog: Banned from the Beach by William Kotzwinkle

In Walter the Farting Dog: Banned from the Beach, America's favorite flatulent dog is off with his family for a tropical shore holiday, where Betty and Billy's family find their posh cottage most satisfactory.

As usual, Walter "blows it" as he tries to excavate a bone buried in the sand and inadvertently blows the grouchy Crabbe family's beach umbrella away. When Walter is summarily banned from the beach, Walter's sympathetic family try to assuage his hurt feelings with a pleasant stroll through the village, whereupon his unfortunate windiness blasts the meringue off the al fresco diners' Key Lime pie.

Confined to the cottage while the family frolics in the ocean, poor Walter decides to "make the best of it," snacking on a bag of tropical fruit, marked COOK THOROUGHLY. Suddenly, Walter hears Betty and Billy, stranded on a sand bar with the tide rising and shouting for help. Selflessly, he breaks out of the cottage and charges to their rescue. When the tropical fruit produces the predictably powerful effluent, Walter parts the ocean waters like Moses, allowing the kids to escape to the shore and exposing an old pirate chest filled with gold and jewels. The treasure thrills the family, who begin planning to purchase their own coastal cottage. Walter, however, is a disappointed and deflated dog: he'd been hoping for a chest filled with bones.

For more holiday happenings with the gad-about dog who is always a gas, see Walter the Farting Dog Goes on a Cruise.


Friday, July 27, 2007

Creatures from Inner Space: The Deep: The Extraordinary Creatures of the Abyss by Claire Nouvain

For an eye-goggling, mind-boggling look at some of the amazingly grotesque and exquisitely beautiful creatures of the ocean depths, take a look at Claire Nouvain's recently published The Deep: The Extraordinary Creatures of the Abyss.

In what Andrew Robinson of Literary Review has called "a modern classic of natural history," Nouvain has utilized the advances in recent deep-water exploration technology to assemble a large-format book which glows with over 200 color photographs of little-known (and some yet unnamed) creatures of the deepest regions of the world's oceans. In their dazzling colors, morphologies not even imagined in Star Wars, and variety of adaptations to the biological imperatives of nutrition and reproduction, Just to look upon these animals expands our concept of life.

Reviewer Eric Ormsby describes these incredible photos as "like a series of underwater mug shots crafted by Faberge'." Along with eight photos of creatures who have no name, there are shots of giant squids the size of a barge, giant vent worms, dumbo and glass octopi, frilled sharks, furry lobsters, naked sea butterflies, and pigbutt worms. The prints of bioluminescent and and transparent animals are spellbinding. There are also sections on the little-known life which exists around deep sea hydrothermal and methane vents. Six-year-olds will be drawn to the photos of creatures more bizarre than any Pokemon creation, and older readers can skim the captions or go as far as their interests may take them into this volume.

The Deep has not been received just as a compendium of "ohmygosh" photos, however. Reviewers have applauded Nouvain's extensive informative text and captions and her generous utilization of fifteen eminent scientists who wrote evocative essays explaining life in the ocean abyss. Says Jon Copley of New Scientist, "Words and images combine to convey what we know and how much we don't know about life in our planet's largest habitat." And regarding that exploration of our "inner space," Robert Ballard says, "We must remember that a great deal of unfinished business remains here on earth."

And, judging from what this book reveals, what an exciting, inviting business it will be!

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Thursday, July 26, 2007

The Best Color Book Ever! Color by Ruth Heller

From pencils and markers and crayons and chalks...
from paints in a tube...or a jar...or
come colors delicious, delectable, lush...
applied by ten fingers, two hands...or a brush.

So begins Ruth Heller's delicious, delectable picture book Color, a feast for the senses, with illustrations so real you want to grab one of the pictured colored pencils and start sketching or dip your digits into the finger paints and just let go!

But it's not only a beautiful book to look upon. It's the best darn book for teaching everything a youngster needs to know about color. Not only does it demonstrate primary and secondary colors, but it demonstrates with a print of an angel fish in four color separations how printers apply yellow, magenta, cyan blue and black in sequence to produce full-color prints. The rhyming text describes the magic that black and white bring to color prints as well:

We call black a color,
but that's problematic.
Black should really be

With acrylic overlays of the basic four colors, the reader can combine bars of the six primary and secondary colors into 36 color blocks or perform the same trick to make a kaleidoscope of colors. Heller's rhymes explain how to warm up or cool down a color and how to use the color wheel to make colors pop or pair them with complementary colors to calm them down. There's even a green and pink heart which when stared at for the count of 30 will produce a perfect negative image on the facing white page.

The final pages disprove that a rose is a rose is a rose. In Heller's hands a rose is a masterpiece of color overlays which produce the perfect rose for the author's hat--or what's left of it!

Color is magic...
No doubt about that.
If you're not convinced...
I'll eat my hat!

This is the perfect book for the toddler just learning colors. It's perfect for young artists and art teachers, too. In fact, it's a book just to sit quietly with and be reminded of the beautiful magic of color.


Wednesday, July 25, 2007

More Kindles and Clowders: Cat-alog of More Great Cat Books

Leslie Anne Ivory's Everything I Know About Life I Learned from My Cat is filled with her exquisite paintings of cats which showcase those quirks of the cat personality which make them an everlasting joy to observe. The text humorously celebrates these quirks. For example, for a cat "personal space is good." Cats can be big snugglers, but they like their own place and space, and when they wish to snooze or watch a bird alone, they let you know! Cats also have an adaptable quality to love anyone who loves them ("love the one you're with), but they also have a loyalty to place ("life is as good as the view") which values home no matter where they roam.

Jane Yolen's Meow: Cat Stories from Around the World, lavishly illustrated by Hala Wittwer, features stories and rhymes about cats from such diverse places as Tibet, Scotland, Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Chippewa lands of North America, who provide just one version of "Why the Cat Falls on Her Feet." In the chapter titled "What People Say about Cats," we find such sayings as "In a cat's eye, all things belong to cats," (England) or "'Tis easy to teach the cat the way to the butter churn." (Scotland)

Sue Stainton's The Lighthouse Cat, exquisitely illustrated by Anne Mortimer, tells the story of a gray-striped cat who turns up in a box of onions and potatoes ferried from the mainland and is adopted by a lonely lighthouse keeper. Named Mackerel, the faithful cat nightly trudges up and down the many steps with the keeper to tend the 24-candle lantern at the top of the lighthouse. One dark night a fierce storm destroys the lantern, endangering passing ships. Quickly, Mackerel calls twelve of his fellow cats from the village to the top of the lighthouse, and when the clouds break, their glowing green eyes reflect the moonlight and save the ships sailing through the treacherous seas below. Breathtaking pictures and a hold-your-breath adventure make this story of a loyal cat as satisfying as a kitten in your lap.

Jan Brett's Comet's Nine Lives takes the reader on a picturesque tour of Nantucket Island as Comet, a clueless young cat, imprudently loses eight of his nine lives when his curiosity leads him to investigate all the delightful places on Nantucket. Luckily for Comet, the storm which takes his eighth life washes him through an open door and into a room where he finds a green-eyed calico lighthouse cat and a home where he wants to spend the rest of his life.


Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Kindles and Clowders: Catopia: A Cat Compendium by Caroline Repchuk

"One small cat changes coming to an empty house to coming home."

The mysterious power of cats to adapt themselves to humans has made them arguably the country's most popular pet. Caroline Repchuk's Catopia: A Cat Compendium celebrates cats in a book that mirrors its subject--pleasant to look upon, full of curiosities and complexities, and comfortable to hold on your lap.

Catopia is beautifully illustrated, befitting its subject, and provides enough interactive features such as tiny story booklets, flaps to lift, and even a movable astrological wheel for your cat to keep any child fascinated, but one of the book's best features is its informational sections; Kitten Caboodle; Cats of the World; Feline Folklore; Catnaps (Sleep); Dreaming of Cats; The Aristo-Cat; On the Prowl; Cat Chat; Literary Chats;, Cat Ancestry; and Inspiring Cats.

Nuggets of cat lore include such tidbits as the fact that cats sleep more than sixteen hours a day (prompting the quote "I never heard of a cat who suffered from insomnia!") or that black cats are lucky on board ship, as the pet of a fisherman's wife, or as the subject of a dream. If it's love or money you seek, dream of a tortoise shell cat or a ginger tom. If it's popularity you crave in a pet, the Persian is at the head of the top ten list.

Repchuk lists many common plants which are poisonous to cats--azaleas, daffodils, ivy, and marigolds, for example--and also tells us about Teddy Roosevelt's cat Slippers and Winston's Churchill's cat Jack, both of whom were privy to most councils of state with their masters. And who could forget the wonderful story of Koko's Kitten, named All Ball, the beloved pet of Koko the sign-language gorilla, or Ninja, the cat who traveled 850 miles to return to his old home. As a bonus, the book is replete with cat quotations, each a jewel in itself.

If you know someone who has an only cat, a kindle (two or more kittens), or a clowder (a group) of cats, or someone who just wishes he did, Catopia is the purr-fect birthday, cat-adoption, hostess, or anytime gift.

"Life is hard.
Soften yours with a cat."


Monday, July 23, 2007

Another Review of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Here's a professional reviewer's take on the Deathly Hallows that doesn't talk about the "muddled middle" of the novel but does take the long view of the series.

Back to School: No Talking by Andrew Clements

Nobody chronicles turn of the (twenty-first) century elementary school life better than Andrew Clements, and his new just-published novel No Talking is no exception.

Dave Packer and his female nemesis Lynsey Burgess are notable motormouths in a notorious fifth-grade class the teachers of Laketon Elementary christened "The Unshushables" back in their Kindergarten year. They're good kids, even good students, but so loud and talkative that their principal Mrs. Hiatt patrols the cafeteria with a bullhorn and their teachers are already planning the celebration when the whole class graduates.

But while Dave is researching his report on India with Lynsey, he is struck by Gandhi's custom of foregoing speech one day a week "to bring order to the mind." Dave is intrigued and decides to test his ability to keep quiet all day Monday. To get out of his share of the oral report with Lynsey, though, Dave has to feign a coughing fit, and Lynsey is livid! At a lunchroom showdown, Dave breaks his rule of silence long enough to challenge Lynsey and the girls to a silence test--two days of NO TALKING, on the honor system, with the caveat that the boy and girl teams may respond to grownups at school with no more than three-word answers.

It's a tall order for the Unshushables, and the eerie silence which falls on the whole fifth grade shakes Laketon Elementary to the core. At first the teachers are giddy with the lovely quiet in their classrooms, but soon they discover that it's hard to go on with their usual lessons without comments and questions from the students. Principal Hiatt, control freak that she is, has a total meltdown when the students resolutely keep quiet when she commands them, through her bullhorn, in no uncertain terms to "TALK. I WANT YOU TO TALK RIGHT NOW!" Respectful but angry, too, Dave stands up to issue his manifesto:

"I do not have to talk now if I don't want to. This is our lunch time. None of us has to talk. YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO REMAIN SILENT."

The contest goes on, even spreading to the lower grades, as Dave and Lynsey grimly tally up the slips into speech by the opposing team, with the losing team pledged to wear an indelible red "L" for Losers on their foreheads at the end of the 48-hour period. Somehow, though, Dave and Lynsey become allies in the struggle to keep their challenge alive, and teachers rally to the challenge of teaching in creative ways within the limits of the contest. Silently, nonverbally, the two rivals agree to call the contest a draw as they compile the final tally. The Unshushables, boys and girls alike, declare themselves both winners.

Clements' novels share an admirable theme in which the main character's rebellion against some adult convention results in his or her finding a novel way to work within the system to accomplish the objective. Clements' third-person omniscient voice works perfectly in this novel, with points of view shifting between Dave's and Lynsey's battle of the sexes, Mrs. Hiatt's fuming alone in her office, and the faculty lounge where the teachers debate how to handle this novel situation. The New York Times Book Review calls No Talking "Clements' best school story since [ Frindle. ]"

Other notable school stories by Andrew Clements include The Landry News, Lunch Money, A Week in the Woods, The Last Holiday Concert, and the Jake Drake series.


Sunday, July 22, 2007

It Is Finished: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowling - A Review

[Note: If you have not read the book yet and don't want to know what happens in it, read the first and last paragraphs of this review only.]

I have it on good authority that internet traffic was unusually low yesterday, presumably as millions and millions of people worked their way through the 750 pages of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. And it is work. I started the book at 1:00 a.m. on July 21, and, admittedly taking time out to sleep a bit and eat and converse a bit, I finished it at 11:20 p.m. As expected, it is a long and complex book in a long and complex series, a book which will doubtless be read by many children, but which nevertheless is a book which, although cast in a metaphor common to children's fiction, is a piece of literature for the mature mind as well.

As the novel begins with Lily's protective spell on Privet Drive about to expire on Harry's seventeen birthday, Severus Snape enters Voldemort's war room in Lucius Malfoy's home, confirming that he has indeed been the Death Eater's mole within Hogwarts, to reveal the secret plans of the Order of the Phoenix to take Harry from the Dursley house and into one of the Order's safe houses. As Harry survives their attack and is reunited with Hermione, Ron and the other Weasleys, and the Order of the Phoenix, he learns that Voldemort's Death Eaters are in control of the Ministry of Magic and of Hogwarts, with Snape as headmaster, and their attack upon the magical and muggle world has brutally begun.

After the flurry of tension around Harry's arrival at the Weasley's Burrow, the narrative proceeds slowly, rather like a penny in one of those coin vortexes, in which the penny rotates slowly and vertically at first, picking up velocity as it slants into the narrow opening and makes its inevitable drop. Harry understands that to overcome Voldemort, he must destroy the final four known Horcruxes which encapsule parts of Voldemort's soul and thereby prevent his final death. Two of these, the ring of Gaunt and the Slytherin locket, have already been taken from their secret hiding places, and Harry, Hermione, and Ron choose not to return to Hogwarts so that they may find and destroy the remaining four.

The middle portion of the novel finds the three friends wandering in their own Wasteland as they seek clues to the meaning and location of the remaining Horcruxes. Harry particularly is torn between singlemindedly hunting down the Horcruxes or pursuing the legendary deathly hallows, the unconquerable Elder Wand, the Resurrection Stone, and the Cloak of Invisibility, the last of which he already possesses, the three which, if united, can conquer Death. Death for Harry is a real possibility with the Prophecy revealed near the end of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Gradually, as Harry comes into possession of the Sword of Gryffindor, he comes to understand that it is only through the destruction of the Horcruxes that Voldemort's reign can ever be brought to an end.

With those tasks near completion, Harry secretly witnesses Voldemort murder Snape to gain the ultimate power of the Elder Wand. With Hermione's help, he gathers Snape's dying memories and in Dumbledore's Pensieve those thoughts reveal the story of Snape's complex relationship with Harry's parents, with Dumbledore, and with Harry. Harry fearfully understands at last that he himself is the seventh Horcrux, that his strange connection with Voldemort's mind is real, the evidence that a piece of Voldemort's soul indeed has been part of Harry since Lily's death. This revelation means that in order for Voldemort and the evil within him to end, Harry must die. In an ironic extension of the Prophecy, it is only when Harry is obliterated by Voldemort's hand that the final Horcrux can cease to exist, allowing Voldemort to die as well.

How to judge this huge work as a piece of literature? My first reaction was that the book should have ended on page 704. In a way it did, emotionally and thematically. The following two chapters and Rowling's final "Nineteen Years Later" are essentially epilogue to the grand theme of the series, that of the power of loving sacrifice in the ongoing struggle of good and evil. Here in Harry's first ironic take on his fate lies the heart of Harry's decision:

[Harry] had never questioned his own assumption that Dumbledore wanted him alive. Now he saw that his life span had always been determined by how long it took to eliminate all the Horcruxes. Dumbledore had passed the job of destroying them to him, and obediently he had continued to chip away at the bonds tying not only Voldemort, but himself, to life. How neat, how elegant, not to waste any more lives, but to give the dangerous task to the boy who had already been marked for slaughter, and whose death would not be a calamity, but another blow against Voldemort.

And Dumbledore had known that Harry would not duck out, that he would keep going to the end, even though it was his end, because he had taken trouble to get to know him, hadn't he? Dumbledore knew, as Voldemort knew, that Harry would not let anyone else die for him now that he had discovered it was in his power to stop it.

The question of the last chapters will no doubt be debated by literary scholars for some time to come. In the chapter "King's Cross" Rowling gives Dumbledore a chance to redeem himself in the eyes of the reader and in the final "Flaw in the Plan" an opportunity for a "reborn" Harry to offer a chance at remorse to Voldemort and allow the evil one to die ironically by his own hand. Some will say that the matter of these two chapters should have been written earlier in the narrative line, and perhaps they should.

With all the quibbles--about exposition and selectivity and character development-- which inevitably will come, what will be the place of Harry Potter in literature? I can't know, but I can say that no series has managed to bring together so many threads and influences from earlier literature into one comprehensive popular work the way J. K. Rowling has done. Rowling's books are almost primers for English children's literature in the widest sense, combining as they do allusions to folklore, the quest novel, religious allegory and miracle plays, the British fantasy tradition, mythology, the bildungsroman, touches of the humor of boarding school stories, Twain and Dickens, and all that steady stream that flows from Tolkien and Lewis through Cooper and LeGuin. And with that contribution Rowling has earned her place.


Adventure for Girls: Skeleton Man by Joseph Bruchac

Joseph Bruchac's Skeleton Man is a classic suspense thriller melded with a monster tale drawn from Native American legend. The novel begins in media res with middle-schooler Molly narrating how she came to be held prisoner each night by a skeletal old man claiming to be her great uncle.

When Molly's parents fail to return home after a Saturday evening out, Molly is initially in a state of denial, hiding their disappearance from her school and her parents' employers and praying that they will return. When the truth becomes evident, Molly is horrified when the authorities hand her over to tall, scary man of whom she had never heard but who presents credentials and old family photos as proof of kinship to local social workers.

As she is taken away by the strange man, Molly cannot help thinking of her mother's retelling of an old Mohawk story of a lazy greedy uncle who first ate his own flesh from his bones and then one by one consumes his family. When the old man's bizarre behavior and nightly trip upstairs to lock Molly into her bedroom begins to terrify her, Molly falls back on her family's teachings of courage and begins to plan her escape.

Snooping while her so-called uncle is away, Molly discovers surveillance monitoring on his computer and realizes that the outside doors and perhaps her own room have cameras planted in them. Carefully, praying that her frightening dreams will guide her, Molly plans her escape. On Friday, when computer installers leave their tool kits in her classroom, Molly takes a drill home with her, and when she knows her "uncle" is paying his nightly visit to his tool shed outside, she removes the hinges from her door to escape. Quickly collecting computer disks and printed evidence from his office, Molly slips out of the house into the moonlit night.

Once concealed outside, Molly throws a stone through her bedroom window to lure the "uncle" inside and rushes into the shed, where she quickly locates an underground cage where her parents are held captive. Passing the tools to her father to help them escape, Molly flees through the woods toward the river with the old man not far behind.

As in her dreams, a rabbit breaks out of the underbrush and seems to lead her toward a rickety footbridge across the river rapids. As Skeleton Man draws closer and closer, Molly's only hope is to follow the "spirit guide" represented by the rabbit and the daring plan revealed by her dream.

Bruchac combines the horror of a supernatural stalker with details of modern technology in a riveting fantasy horror tale and a modern crime story believable on both levels. A resourceful heroine who refuses to become a victim, Molly is an appealing and plausible character as Bruchac ably weaves her Native American background seamlessly into a page-turning thriller. As R. L. Stine (best known for his best-selling Goosebumps series) wrote of this novel, "The legend is chilling--and the terror builds on every page. This book gave ME nightmares!"

Molly's story is continued in Bruchac's 2006 sequel The Return of Skeleton Man. Taken together, these two middle-school mystery-fantasies are great for readalouds, sleepovers, campouts, and just plain flashlight reading under the covers!

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Saturday, July 21, 2007

Another Teen Girl Sleuth--Sherlock's Little Sister: The Enola Holmes Mysteries by Nancy Springer

Nancy Springer, author of the previously reviewed and admirable Rowan Hood series about the adventures of Robin Hood's daughter, has embarked on a new series about a famous fictional character's relative, the Enola Holmes Mysteries. For Springer, a two-time Edgar Award winner, the sister of Sherlock Holmes is a natural subject, a Victorian girl endowed with a drive for intellectual and personal independence who shares her famous brother's powers of observation and reason.

Enola, by her very name, which spelled backward is "alone," is no stranger to her mother's penchant for ciphers and hidden meanings, especially of the botanical sort, but when her mother suddenly disappears on her fourteenth birthday, Enola feels that the birthday gifts left behind for her contain the secret of her mother's whereabouts. Her much-older brothers, Mycroft and Sherlock Holmes, are, however, clueless about the disappearance until an audit of the manor's accounts shows that their mother has been embezzling funds for years, enough to provide herself with considerable "mad money" far from the restraints of Victorian widowhood.

For Enola the brothers have a safe plan for their little-known young sister--into some good stout corsetry with her and off to a reputable boarding school where she can become a proper young lady suitable for a propitious marriage as soon as possible. Enola deciphers enough of her mother's cryptic gifts to locate a goodly sum of money left behind for her and takes it on the lam as soon as she is out of her brothers' sight.

Traveling by bicycle and railway and disguised in widow's weeds, Enola conceals her money and changes of clothing inside the "bust enhancers," "hip regulators," and "dress improvers" built into Victoria female garb. Almost by accident, Enola becomes involved in the search for a kidnapped twelve-year-old marquess, presumably abducted from his estate, and in a string of chases, narrow escapes, and near death experiences at the hands of several Dickensian villains, Enola keeps the action going as she puts together the clues to the identify of the mendacious kidnappers and, incidentally, the way to trace her mother's path to personal freedom. Escaping the Victorian trap to which her brothers' good intentions will lead, Enola disguises herself again and sets herself up in business as the go-between for her alter ego, Leslie T. Ragostin, Scientific Perditorian, finder of lost objects and lost persons.

Enola Holmes' engaging adventures continue in The Case of the Left-Handed Lady and the forthcoming (January 31, 2008) The Case of the Bizarre Bouquets. With an engaging teen girl sleuth in the best tradition of Nancy Drew, et al, a fresh historical setting, and the proper literary lineage, this series looks like more than a bit of all right.

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