The Courage Test by James Preller

courage-testThe cover of The Courage Test caught my eye and I had to read it.  Middle school student Will has plans for the summer. All-Stars starts this week and his
mother is pushing him out the door. Will Meriwether Miller is going to travel down the Lewis and Clark Trail with his father, a professor of American History. Will’s dad is a Lewis and Clark fanatic and has been working on a book about, you guessed it, Lewis and Clark for over ten years. Will was even named after them. He’s pissed at his dad  because he moved  out of the house and now has a new girlfriend. Will thinks that the idea of a trip is his dad’s, that he wants some together time. He is determined to be bored and unpleasant. Will’s dad though gets him to crack a smile with his jokes, Doritos and a trip to Will’s favorite restaurant, Denny’s, for pancakes.

Will is given a notebook in case he wants to take notes on the trip, something the the men on the expedition did that allows historians to know the way they got to the Pacific, what they traded and the fact that even though they packed for two years, along the way they ran out of everything. Skeptical at first, Will starts writing in it along the way. When they arrive at the Upper Missouri River they get supplies and a canoe and go for four days on the river. During the trip they meet a friend of his dad’s, a Nez Perce, he’s known since grad school. Will winds up paddling down the river with him the next day and Ollie teaches Will about the fate of his people.That day he sees an eagle and talks to Ollie about the bear he’s been dreaming about.

While it took Lewis and Clark two years to cross travel from Will and his dad make the trip in two weeks, driving, hiking, paddling and whitewater rafting. Along the way Will has to pass his own courage tests. These, along with developing a closeness with his dad and meeting a young girl and her enormous dog, help him to deal with issues that he will face in the near future.

The Courage Test is a quick and pleasant read, but somewhat predictable. I learned a lot of history about Lewis and Clark and the fate of the native people that they encountered and I liked the way it was woven into the story about Will and his dad’s trip. Also, Will’s encounter with a certain large animal is gripping as are some other moments in the story.

It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel by Firoozeh Dumas

Zomorod Yousefzadeh just wants to fit in.  Before she starts 6th grade at her new Newport Beach middle school, she changes her name to Cindy, a name she gets from the Brady Brunch.  Born in  Iran, she spent two years in Compton, Ca. before going back to Iran for a year with her parents and then returning to Compton, where  no one at her school could say her name.  Having moved back and forth so much their family motto is to not buy stuff that breaks easily.  They’ve just moved to a condo in Newport Beach.  To Zomorod, it seems like galaxies away though it’s only one hour by car.   Given the Rules for Condominium Living by the condescending landlady, her father tells her to translate it for her mother. She balks.  The welcome page shows a typical American family with a boy and a girl next to a barbecue.  Zomorod doesn’t think her family looks anything like the people in the picture, but she thinks that they can relate, since her family loves grilling.  Her father calls himself the “King of Kebabs.”

After the summer goes by pretty much friendless,  except with a short friendship with the51RRffOg3KL next door girl, also a Cindy.   As Cindy, she faces some humiliating days at the beginning of school,  and runs to her classes to inform her teachers about her name change before roll call.   Soon though she makes friends with Carolyn.  She loves going to Carolyn’s house whose mother make tacos and takes them Trick or Treating on  Halloween.   Carolyn gets her to join the Girl Scouts which leads to more friends.

Like many first generation American children, Cindy is embarrassed by her parents lack of knowledge about how things are done here.  It takes her a long time before she has her friends over  to her house.  She hates translating for her mother, and particularly dislikes the Iranian custom of taarof, the Iranian form of being polite and like extreme Southern hospitality, where you keep denying yourself and offering food or tea to guests.  In taarof, it is expected that the guest who says no, they don’t really mean it  and are just being polite.

Expecting to return to Iran, her mother refuses accommodate to life in California; she won’t make a huge turkey for the three of them for Thanksgiving and when she goes to buy camping equipment for Girl Scout camp, she’s annoyed that her father won’t buy her things that aren’t on sale.  But Cindy’s not a whiner; she makes the best of things.

Then, because the novel is set in the last years of  the 1970s, as the political situation with Iran gets increasingly bad over a year, Cindy and her parents begin to worry about their family members in Iran.  They are taunted and recieve threats from neighbors and strangers, including a dead hamster with a note, “ Go back to Iran,” which Cindy keeps quiet.  At school she hears she’s threatened and “Bomb Iran” becomes a popular song.  Cindy and her family turn inwards as the American hostage situation goes on for months and months.   Still jobless and with no hopes of finding employment, her father decides they must return to Iran as they cannot afford to live here.  That’s when Cindy and her family discover who their friends really are.

This semi-autobiographical novel is inspiring and delightful, it’s funny and moves quickly with its short chapters.  During her three years of middle school, Cindy goes from being a shy, timid girl, to one who can stand up for herself and her family.  In conjunction with the book, Dumas is starting a Falafel Kindness Project which will be up on her website soon.   She will post stories by students and educators about acts of kindness they’ve experience.  After all, In A Streetcar Named Desire Blanche DuBois said, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers”  which Cindy posted in her room and which the author uses as a lead to her Acknowledgments.

Li Jun and the Iron Road by Anne Tait

Li Jun and the Iron Road was adapted from the TV miniseries, The Iron Road.   Li Jun is  a young Chinese girl whose father Li Junhas gone to Canada to build the railroads.  After a time he has not been heard from or sent money, so Li Jun is sent by he mother to work as a servant for the first wife of the head of their clan in Hong Kong. When her mother dies, she is determined not to return to her abusive position, but to travel to Canada to work on the railroad and seek her father, Li Man.

LI Jun goes back to Hong Kong, disguised as a boy, and gets work in a firecracker factory.  There she also earns extra cash delivering laundry.  One of her customers, a kind man who is an alcoholic named Mr. Relic, becomes her tutor and teaches her Engllish.  Another mentor is Mr. Zhou from the fireworks factory.  In one of my favorite scenes from the book, Mr. Zhou teaches Li Jun how to explode a walnut shell without shattering the nut inside.  This will be a valuable skill when she becomes a railroad builder.

There is a lot to be commended in this book.  Baits can paint intimate scenes, like the one of her working with Mr. Zhou, or moments with her mother, but it all seems very rushed.  She seems to become an excellent English speaker overnight.  Her daily life in the railway is not fully explored and her relationship with Mr. James proceeds too quickly.

Nevertheless the story of Chinese railway workers, the discrimination, unsafe conditions, the lying and cheating that were used to get cheap labor is told.

I would give this 2 1/2 stars and recommend it to 4th and 5th graders.  It may have been intended for older audiences, but it lacks substance for it to be a praiseworthy YA read.

Fuzzy Mud by Louis Sachar

fuzzy_mudAfter a short history of the once elegant building that now houses the Woodridge Academy in Heath Cliff, PA, Sachar jumps into the middle of a blustering, and somewhat gross, lunchtime conversation among some boys in the 7th grade about a hermit who lives in the woods next to their school.. Tamaya and some friends from the 5th grade are sitting with these boys when she enters the conversation and right away someone calls her a “real Goody Two Shoes.” She wonders when the rules changed, when it became bad to be good?

That very afternoon she expects to walk home with an older neighbor, Marshall. She is not allowed to walk to school or back alone, but he has decided to ditch his usual path. He is afraid of an encounter with a bully, Chad, who has been threatening to beat him up. She breaks the rules and follows him.  Not only do they get lost, but she has a bad fall. While Marshall goes off to a leg to find the way, Tamaya notices some fuzzy mudlike substance. At the same time, Chad appears and attacks Marshall. Chad threatens her as being next, but she grabs some of the mud and shoves it into his face.

All the way home and all night Marshall worries about meeting Chad. Then when Chad doesn’t show up at school the next day, he wishes Chad would just come in and beat him up. When the principal comes into the classroom to announce that Chad hadn’t gone home the night before, he freaks.

What they don’t know, but we do, is that there have been some secret government meetings about the goings on about 30 miles from the school at SunRay Farm where a scientist has been developing “a single-celled living creature that is totally unnatural to this planet… [in order to] burn them alive inside automobile engines.” These creatures were formed from DNA altered slime mold.

So begins an environmental disaster story that is exciting and scary. I love the way each chapter has an illustration with a petri dish that starts off empty, but begins to multiply exponentially. As Tamaya comes down with a rash, the incredible multiplication of the ergonyms is revealed with increasing figures from 2 x 1 = 2 to 2 x 32,768 = 65,536, giving us the sense that this threat is unbeatable.

Thanks to NetGalley for allowing me to preview this wonderful book.

The War that Saved my Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

On September 1, 1938, British Operation Pied Piper began under which British children were evacuated from cities in order 20912424to protect them from anticipated German bombing. On September 3 Britain declared war on Germany. In The War that Saved my Life, Ada and Jamie, like thousands of children from London, were sent to the countryside. It wasn’t supposed to be that way. Their mam only wanted to send Jamie, since, as she said to Ada, “Who’d want you? Nobody, that’s who. Nice people don’t want to look at that foot… You can’t leave. You never will. You’re stuck here, right here in this room, bombs or no.” Ada had a club foot and had never been allowed to leave their tiny apartment. She only stared out their window at the kids playing and was sad when Jamie had become independent, running around with his pals. But she had a plan, “You find out where we have to go and what time we have to be there…We’re leaving together, we are.”

Leaving is harder than she thought, not sneaking out on their sleeping mother part,  but getting to the school. Ada had never walked before, only crawled on her scabby knees,  but at one point Peter White, whom Ada had watched from the window, offered Ada a piggy back ride to the school. From there they were taken by train, with no food or bathroom stops. But Ada caught sight of a girl on a horse running through a field and flying over a stone fence, and she decided, “I’m going to do that.” Finally the train stopped and a teacher ordered all of the children out to use the loos. This was Ada’s first time to see herself in a mirror and she saw “the shabbiest, nastiest-looking girl (she’d) ever seen.” Then they were lined up like “fish on a slab” to be chosen by the villagers. After all of the children were chosen, Jamie and Ada remained, but the iron-faced woman, a member of the WVS (Women’s Volunteer Service) took charge. She ordered a single reclusive woman, the “not that nice” Miss Smith, to take them in.

Ada becomes transformed living with Susan, who has a pony in the field, left by her friend Becky who died. Despite her bravery in teaching herself to ride the pony, she remains defensive, dubious and fearful of the day she will have to return home. Despite Susan’s initial skepticism about taking in the children, it turns out that Susan’s father, too, had been very disappointed in her, she slowly grows to love them.

This is a wonderful book with a few lapses, but they don’t take away from the experience of reading it. It reminds me of Goodnight Mr. Tom, another book about an evacuee with an abusive mother who winds up living with a recluse.

Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead

goodbye-strangerRebecca Stead has written another extremely well crafted book with authentic characters and dialog.  There are two stories, the main one about three 7th grade girls who have known each other since 4th grade.  Because Bridge had announced that she was allergic to clubs, that she preferred the term ‘set,’ like in math,  “…from then on, they were the set of all fourth graders who drew creatures on their homework.  More than that they were friends.”   As 7th grade moves forward, you wonder if they’ll stay friends.  On club day  Em joins the soccer club and becomes a star player.  Tab gets engrossed with her feminist literature teacher who also runs the Human Rights Club which Tab joins.

Bridge doesn’t want to join a club, but she joins Tech Crew, “Not a club.”  And that’s where she gets to work with Sherm.  Shem and Bridge have a secret connection that Bridge didn’t even know about.  They have a friendship that is wonderful, leaving room for it to develop. One of my favorite scenes happens on the first day of tech crew when Mr. Partridge has the crew one by one walk on the stage and stand in the middle of the stage in order to imagine what it’s like to be onstage and vulnerable and why actors need the stage crew to be there offstage taking care of them.

The other story line is of a high school girl, name unidentified, who decides to not go to school on Valentine’s Day.  That’s the day flowers are given to and received from friends.   And she has bad memories of some of her friends, especially one named Vinny who is manipulative.   Her day off is described in second person, “You feel for your purse, your wallet, your phone.  And your remember.  You don’t have your purse. You don’t have your wallet.  You don’t have your phone.  You can’t go home right now.”  Her vulnerability from hurts by friends made me wonder about how long the friendship of three 7th graders would last.

On top of this there are other plot lines skillfully woven in, all about friendship and broken relations.  How do friends stay friends as their lives and interests change and how do friends deal with hurt and duplicity.  All of the strands of Goodbye Stranger deal with these issues.  As with When You Reach Me after I finished it, I was in awe at how skillfully and subtlly Stead weaves various characters and storylines together.  Put this on your TO READ list!  It’s due out on August 4, 2015.  Thanks to NetGalley for making this fantastic book available.

The Curious World of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly

I love Calpurnia Tate.  She is plucky, kind, curious, adventurous and the best sister a shy boy like Travis could ever hope to have. Travis is a collector of animals, an armadillo, wild birds, a raccoon, and a scraggly dog.  He, of course, is forbidden to bring home any “pets,” but Calpurnia sees how much he needs them and covers for him every time.

The-Curious-World-of-Calpurnia-TateI didn’t read the The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, but I felt that she and her family were fully introduced.  Calpurnia lives in Texas shortly after the Civil War, in a very small town.  She is extremely close to her Granddaddy, who fought with the South, but is extremely open minded.  A champion of Darwin and evolution, Calpurnia loves the time she spends with him dissecting an earthworm and a frog, discovering and naming a new species of plant, the Vicia tateii and talking about most everything.  She knows the Latin name for every animal and plant in their area of Texas.

Once when her father gives her some money for her thirteenth birthday to save for her trousseau, she responds, “My what Bed Linens? Clothes? Was he kidding? I searched his face for signs of joshing but there were none.  I couldn’t believe it…How could I be so Misunderstood by my own father?  I was a foreigner in my own home, a citizen of some other tribe, a member some other genus.”  Of course it’s not only her father who misunderstands her;  her mother is always pressuring her to practice piano and knit.

One day while learning about weather and barometers by making a crude one, Calpurnia notices something interesting.  a strange bird, a laughing gull, a strange thing to see two hundred miles inland.  As her grandfather looks at the barometer he becomes alarmed that a terrible storm is coming.  As he hastens to send a telegraph to warn Galveston. Nobody pays attention and the famous Galveston Hurricane causes untold devastation and the introduction of her strange cousin Aggie to their lives.

The thing that most bothered me is that the issues of race relations are mainly ignored.  Of course since the story is told from Calpurnia’s point of view,  it is not surprising that these issues are not pointed out.  Her family has two black women who who do most the house work including the cooking. The kitchen is Viola’s domain.  Calpurnia’s mother pitches in a bit for Thanksgiving, fortified with “periodic headache powders” and told by her husband “not to overtax [herself].”   Knowing that the Civil War has recently ended, her Granddaddy being a veteran, Calpurnia who is so curious about everything, does not seem curious about race relations.  She is quite aware of the injustices done to women, especially when she learns that her six brothers received twice as much as she did for their birthdays.  Perhaps in a later book, when Calpurnia is older, she will start to wonder about race.  Or maybe it’s us the readers who must feel somewhat uncomfortable reading such an overwhelmingly happy story knowing the misery that surrounds the Tates’ lives.

Gabriel Finley & the Raven’s Riddle by George Hagen

Here is a wonderful fantasy filled with riddles that is great for middle grade students, especially ones who like riddles. It is also Gabriel-Finleypacked with animal, or avian, lore as well as being based upon two ravens from Norse mythology, Huginn and Munin. The story alternates between the story of Paladin, a baby raven, and Gabriel. Gabiel Finley is eleven-years old, living in an old part of Brooklyn with his aunt. His mother disappeared when he was very young and his father has been gone for three years. Gabriel is an expert on riddles; he says they create flexible minds. It turns out that ravens also are riddle experts. That is how they can tell if another raven is indeed a raven or a valraven. Valravens have no sense of humor and are “vicious, spiteful creatures.” Nothing is funny to them. The first valraven was created when a raven obeyed a phantom who told him he could live forever if he at the flesh of his master. Since then humans began to shun ravens as soldiers saw valravens eating dead soldiers on battlefields. Before then ravens and humans were friends.

As Gabriel notices that he knows what a raven is thinking, Paladin learns that his grandfather had an amicus, a raven’s human friend, that they could share thoughts and paravolate, merge and fly together. Later, when Gabriel receives his father’s childhood diary, he learns that his father could also communicate with a wounded raven who he took to his father to heal. His father learned that this raven was in danger from Corax and when he asked who Corax was, he was told that Corax was his older brother.

Gabriel and Paladin embark on an adventure to the underground world of Aviopolis, where he must use riddles to rescue his father who is being held prisoner. Traveling with them is an untrustworthy thief, two friends from school and a young violin player named Penelope. They are clearly drawn and unique.

I loved the beginning and the end, but became impatient in the middle. Though set in Brooklyn, it felt like it could have been set anywhere. Except for Aviopolis, which is very vivid, the book lacks a strong sense of place.  The author left room for a sequel.

The Children of the King by Sonia Hartnett

“But that is how life works — something is done, and it is never undone.  Everything that changes, changes everything forever.’
 

children-of-the-kingThe Children of the King is a literary masterpiece for young people, but a great book for adults as well.  It is so perfectly put together, the language exquisite, and full of nuance and discoveries. During the London Blitz, children were sent from London to live with family members or perfect strangers to escape the relentless bombing by the Germans.  Some children fared well and some horribly, though it was surely painful to be separated from their families even for those in the best situations.

In Hartnett’s book, twelve-year-old, not terribly bright and by her own admission, “a clumsy-clot,” Cecily and her older brother Jeremy Lockwood are sent away, along with their mother, to their family’s estate in Yorkshire.   Jeremy badly wants to stay and help out with the war effort, but he’s only fourteen and must go away.  Their father seems to be involved with some secret aspects of the war, but Jeremy is somewhat resentful that he’s not off fighting in France.  As they ride in their first class compartment, they are aware of the hundreds of children who are on the train with labels pinned to their coats, “like luggage… or price tag[s]”, evacuees from London but not with their mothers.  Instead these children were accompanied by strict ladies.

When they arrive at their destination, Cecily and Jeremy persuade their most reluctant mother to take on a child and that girl is May, a bright,  very perceptive, ten-year-old. They are met at  Heron Hall by Byron the dog and by their father’s brother, Uncle Peregrine, a widower.  Spoiled Cecily introduces May, “Look what we’ve brought with us..This is May Bright…I chose her at the town hall – just like picking a kitten from a basket,”  “Standing before such a man, no handshake or how-do-you-do seemed fitting.  Instead May did an unusual thing, she bowed.  She bowed low enough to see Peregrine Lockwood’s feet, which were clad in sloppy brown slippers.”

May is willful, leaving Heron Hall the next morning alone to explore the surroundings.  Despite Cecily’s protests, eventually Cecily tags along and together they come upon a ruin of a castle

“It’s lovely, isn’t it”  Cecily couldn’t fathom how something so fester and broken could be so spectacular.
It’s strange.  Most of the castle has gone, but— it feels like it’s here, does’t it?”

Cecily believed she knew what May meant.  Although most of Snow Castle’s walls and all of its roof were missing, their very
absence told of things that had been.

And so Snow Castle enters the story as May and Cecil continue visit it and find two young boys hiding out.   The story that Uncle Peregrine tells through many nights of Snow Castle and King Richard and the crimes he committed to maintain his place on the throne is woven in. “[it] is not a pleasant one.  In some ways it is like the fairy tales of old…But it is not a fairytale: this story is true.”   It is a story of power and powerlessness.  Jeremy as well increasing becomes angered by his own powerlessness to do anything to help England defeat Germany.

Children of the King blends history with fantasy most effectively.  The descriptions of war and its destructiveness are blunt and as Peregrine responds to Cecily and Jem’s mother who hates talk of war and “disagreeable stories,” “Why not?  History repeats itself; the battle for power is fought over and over again.”  This is a tremendous coming-of-age story in which Cecily and Jem learn that their parents may not be heroes they thought, but love them nevertheless written in beautiful language.  It bears reading over and over again.  And I’m not one for rereading books.

She (Heloise Lockwood) never recovered from the realization that children are willful people; she never trusted them again. Worse, she discovered that, when it counted, the world was immune to her wishes and commands.  She who’d believed herself important, found she was just an angry bee in a jar.

Hartnett’s interview about this book is a wonderful addition to reading the book.

West of the Moon by Margi Preus

Having only read one or two previous books based on East of the Sun, West of the Moon, a Norwegian folk tale, I couldn’t remember the talewest of the moon completely, except that a bear takes a young girl from her impoverished home and brings her to his castle. Similar to Beauty and the Beast, he is really a prince, but has been bewitched. I read Preus’ book, West of the Moon,  after reading Elizabeth Bird’s article “The Unlikable Female Character: Thoughts on Middle Grade Literature” on her SLJ (School Library Journal) blog, a fuse #8 production. What struck me immediately was the way Astri comments on her circumstances relating how “In the story…” things went as though looking at herself from afar or in some detached yet sardonic way.  She distinguishes between that story in which a white bear came to a house a promised the family everything they wanted if only he could take the youngest daughter with him. In Astri’s story, “my story,” she calls it, a humpbacked man, as “ill-mannered as a goat, too,” came to take her away, the terms having been decided upon previously it appears. Astri and her young sister Greta live with their aunt and uncle and three girl cousins because their mother has died and their father has gone off to America. The aunt is greedy and is planning to marry off her daughters to wealthy men. In the story, the girl climbs on the bear’s back and they head off. “Well. That is a story and this is my real life, and instead of White Bear King Valmont, I’ve got Old Mr. Goat Svallberd. And instead of “Sit on my back,” he says ”Carry my bag”…

Astri is a combative girl. She knows better than to show any signs of weakness and for her own protection, she steals his knife and hides it below her bundle that serves as her pillow. She will need it. The weeks pass and Astrid is busy taking care of and milking the goats, mucking out their shed, cleaning the filthy house and often getting slapped. After defending herself from assault she is banished to the storehouse where she finds a spinning girl who spins smooth perfect skeins of yarn well into the night but never speaks. After a particularly brutal beating, she is outside when something catches her eye. It turns out to be a boy on his way to the port to sail to America within a fortnight. He is lost and asks directions of Svallberd. As he walks west Astrid decides that “that is the direction I will have to go to get to America.” The rest of the book is of her escape, but not before going for the spinning girl, her sister Greta and stealing money, a ring of keys,the boatman’s Black Book, with charms and curses, and the knife. She also tricks and steals from many along the way at great cost. it is the parson’s wife, a man she has stolen from, who says to her”It’s strange, but there is this odd feature of my personality that almost always makes me sad when I’m surrounded by joy and cheerfulness.” Astrid immediately recognizes herself in the words.

There is much more than immediately meets the eye in Preus’ West of the Moon . In her notes the author tells us that the idea for the book came from a few lines in her great-great-grandmother’s diary when she and her husband sailed to America in 1851. There are also many other Norwegian folktales that are referred to within the story that Preus lists at the end. Most of these were completely unknown to me. I appreciate the notes, the glossary, and the prodigious Bibliography at the end of this beautiful, mystifying book.