Thursday, June 23, 2011

Book Review: The Boy at the End of the World, by Greg Van Eekhout (Bloomsbury Children's Books, 2011)

Recommended for ages 9-12

Yes, it's another boy book - I have two of them, naturally my reading will be influenced by them. But I've got more girl books on the horizon, even princessy stuff. Honest.

I was hoping to like this one more. It took me longer to like it than I expected, especially since I'd been excited about reading this book for a while. I can't yet put my finger on what it was that didn't tune me in right away, because it's an interesting enough book.

Fisher, a preteen boy from what we are led to guess, wakes up in a pod in a shelter. There is destruction all around him, and he sees other beings like him lying dead in similar pods. The only other living being is a robot, from whom he runs. The robot catches up with him and tells the boy that his name is Fisher and he's the only survivor of the human race.

It's the usual post-apocalyptic story. Humans went and ruined the earth and nature's taken her planet back. This time, humans genetically engineered humans and animals and put them in gel-filled pods, with robots to oversee their care, until such tiime came that they could all be reawakened and recreate society. The humans were programmed with specific survival skills that would help them create a community. Fisher, he learns, has been programmed to be a fisherman. Click, the name he gives his robot companion, tells Fisher that he has been tasked with helping Fisher "continue existing".

Fisher heads off to find another Ark - the name of the facilities where the humans and animals were kept in hibernation - with Click and a pygmy mammoth they meet on their travels (and who Fisher names Protein, because his first thought was to eat the mammoth). They also meet up with a group of genetically engineered, intelligent prairie dogs who hate humans because of what they did to the planet and to the prairie dogs.

It's a survivalist tale, and that is where the interest lies. Fisher, created with one set of skills, learns and adapts as the book progresses. He is born little more than a blank slate and we see not only an intelligence develop, but an emotional intellect. The characters they meet aren't cute and cuddly (even Protein is a fan of dropping dung right and left throughout the book), and sometimes, they're downright chilling.

I think where the book stumbles lies in its background story. It is difficult to write a postapocalyptic tale without sounding like hundreds of other books on the market, and the "humans and technology bad, nature good" call to action beats the reader over the head throughout the book. Humans bring the planet to the brink of environmental collapse, so they leave the rest of the planet to deal with it while they go into hiding until the coast is clear. The technology that humans created to save them ultimately turns on them and brings the race to the point of near-extinction, further painting us as hapless ne'er do wells.

Maybe a younger, less jaded audience won't read it through the same eyes as I will - but then again, this is a generation that has been fed this storyline since they were babies. Think Happy Feet, a movie that deceptively sold us a cute story about a penguin who didn't fit in, and gave us a Greenpeace horror movie halfway through the picture. Think of Wall-E, where we were drowning our society in junk, so we had to go into space to get away from it.

I don't want it to sound like I didn't like this book, because I did. I think older middle grade readers, around the 9- and 10-year old mark, will grab onto Fisher as a hero they can identify with as a young boy who needs to learn to survive, and who has a robot companion. And a mammoth. Fisher's society is a society that kids today can understand and relate to, with a marriage of technology and environmental awareness.

Greg Van Eekhout knows how to write for kids - he has a Masters in Education and spent ten years developing online curricula for K-12 and college students. He is kid- and teacher-accessible, offering teachers tips on having author events at schools (and libraries), and providing his e-mail address to be contacted about school visits. He offers two presentations that he follows in his appearances. His website is geared toward grownups who are interested in reading his reviews, about his books, and where he'll be next.

Full disclosure: This is a Bloomsbury book; I got it from work and I am not promoting the book for work. This is solely my opinion.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Book Review: The Popularity Papers: Research for the Social Improvement and General Betterment of Lydia Goldblatt & Julie Graham-Chang, by Amy Ignatow (Amulet Books, 2010)

Recommended for ages 9-13

I finished this book in a day. It's that good. I also giggled out loud while reading this on the subway - it's that funny.

The Popularity Papers is the project ("Learn/Improve") undertaken by fifth graders that want to be popular by the time they reach middle school. They decide that they will observe the most popular girls in the school to figure out what makes them popular, imitate them and perhaps even infiltrate the group. They record their notes, observations, conversations with family and friends, and drawings to tell the story of their social climb. On the way up, they learn that being popular isn't always what it's cracked up to be, that being popular means different thing to different people - including who you like and who you're not supposed to like - and Lydia discovers what can happen when the quest for popularity goes to your head.

The characters aren't your staid, Gossip Girl-type mean girls. One popular girl plays field hockey and knits; Lydia lives with her divorced mom and sister, who made the transition from pretty, tan girl to dark-haired, pale goth; and Julie lives with her two dads, Daddy and Papa Dad. It's a book that addresses different people and different family structures but it's not cliche and it doesn't come across as being portrayed for the sake of being edgy or different. It's an honest storytelling.

The girls' notes to one another are as hilarious as the situations they find themselves in, and Lydia's journaling when she finds herself in sole possession of the notebook after she and Julie stop speaking is heartfelt and real. Readers will easily be able to see themselves and their friends in these characters and can hopefully laugh at themselves a little more easily.

Amy Ignatow's Amulet web page offers an author blog and links to author appearances, press and a gallery of some more images from the book. It looks like another Popularity Papers book has come out - I need to get myself a copy.

Book Review: Foiled, by Jane Yolen; illustrated by Mike Cavallaro (First Second, 2010)

Recommended for ages 12+

I love Jane Yolen's books - her How Do Dinosaurs... series have a very special place on my bookshelf; they provided hours of cuddle time and giggles for my boys and I when they were younger. Her Commander Toad series was my older son's logical next step after enjoying Frog and Toad's adventures. And, as a former fencer, I was thrilled to see that not only did Yolen make a teen female the hero of her graphic fantasy novel, she made her a fencer. Girl power!

Aliera Carstairs is a high school girl who doesn't fit in. She doesn't fit in with the goths "("I don't look good in black"), the nerds ("my grades aren't high enough"), or the jocks ("fencing doesn't count"), but she's dynamic on the fencing strip. Her coach is grooming her for nationals, and she takes his advice to "always guard your heart" very seriously, on and off the strip. Her best friend is her wheelchair-bound cousin Caroline, who Aliera visits every week to play role-playing games with.

Aliera's mom, a compulsive bargain shopper, picks up a fencing foil at a garage sale that Aliera plans to keep as a practice foil once she shaves off a big fake ruby that's been glued onto it. Around the same time as she gets the foil, she meets a new boy in school, Avery Castle, who has all the girls vying for his attention - but he's a little odd. He asks Aliera on a date and they agree to meet in Grand Central Station after her fencing practice. Having never been on a date, she's nervous but accepts.

It's in Grand Central Station that things get interesting. In a Neil Gaiman-esque turn of events, Aliera stumbles on a fantasy world where that connects her, Avery, and her unusual foil.

Foiled leaves off leaving the reader waiting for a second helping. Aliera, Avery and Caroline are all vibrant, interesting characters, even when Aliera is at her most guarded - you want to get behind her fencing armor and find out what makes her tick. Older 'tween and young teen readers alike will enjoy the blending of fantasy into a reality-based setting, and teachers could use this novel in a fairy tale/mythology unit for older readers. The artwork never talks down to the book's audience, portraying kids as kids rather than caricatures; the fantasy creatures are brightly colored and drawn straight from a vivid imagination. The fencing drawings are dynamic.

Jane Yolen's website contains information for both students and teachers, an archive of awards the author has received, book trailers, and a link to her blog.

Nerd Joy.

I finally went to a real, live in-person author event last night - and what an event to go to! I finally got to see Neil Gaiman, my favorite author since Anne Rice went a little crazy on me back in the Lasher days. Sandman, Neverwhere, American Gods, book after book, comic after comic, he's never let me down. (Okay - Interworld. But he wrote that with someone, and I couldn't find much Neil in that book.)

Gaiman, interviewed by Lev Grossman, was charming, funny, and just brilliant, overall. He read a selection from his 10th Anniversary edition (and "preferred text") of American Gods; he spoke about myths and whether or not we take our gods with us; he talked about what scares him, and he stated, definitively, that robots will not take over the world. It was a great evening with great friends. If only the line at the Big Gay Ice Cream Truck hadn't been so long, I'd have treated myself to a Bea Arthur (vanilla ice cream, dulce de leche, crushed Nilla wafers).

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Book Review: Like Pickle Juice on a Cookie, by Julie Sternberg (illustrations by Matthew Cordell) (Amulet Books, 2011)

Recommended for ages 8-10

"I had a bad August. A very bad August. As bad as pickle juice on a cookie. I hope your August was better. I really do."

Thus begins Eleanor's story. Eight-year old Eleanor learns that her beloved babysitter, Bibi, will be leaving her family's employ and their Brooklyn home to move to Florida in order to care for her sick father. To make things worse, her best friend, Pearl, is away on vacation with her family. Heartbroken, she doesn't want to do anything that will remind her of Bibi and she certainly doesn't want another babysitter. But her parents have to work, and a new babysitter shows up. Eleanor learns that it's okay to miss Bibi and still make space in her heart for Natalie.

Pickle Juice teaches kids about loss and how to work through it. Told in free verse and accompanied by line drawings, it presents an easy transition for middle graders ready to move on from beginner chapter books. The story presents many areas for discussion for both parents and teachers having read-alouds with their children.

Julie Sternberg's blog features a curriculum guide for Pickle Juice, as well as an interesting author biography told through her favorite books. Readers can click through to her blog and contact her regarding author visits.

Book Review: Dragonbreath, by Ursula Vernon (Dial Books, 2009)

Recommended for ages 8-12

Ursula Vernon's first book in her Dragonbreath series introduces readers to Danny Dragonbreath, a young dragon who happens to be the only mythical creature in a school filled with reptiles and amphibians. He's a little rebellious, not a fan of schoolwork, and really wants to be able to breathe fire (if for no other reason, than to stop hearing his father's motivational speeches). His best friend, Wendell, is an iguana who finds himself sucked into Danny's crazy schemes when he'd rather be doing something safer, like getting Danny to do his homework.

In Dragonbreath, Danny flunks his paper on the ocean after writing it the morning it's due and making it up from his own imagination. Luckily for him, he's got a sea monster cousin named Edward, who he can visit and from whom he can get an ocean tour, so off he goes, dragging Wendell along with him. Can they survive the deep ocean, where giant squids are known to show up without notice? Will Danny pass his Science paper?

Dragonbreath is a great book for younger readers that are still getting used to chapter books; the book is written in a half-chapter, half-graphic novel format that readers will find user-friendly, and Vernon provides a copious amount of nonfiction information about ocean life through Danny's and Wendell's eyes that will show the kids that learning can be fun.

Vernon's website provides summaries of all the Dragonbreath novels as well as her other titles, as well as updates on author appearances and her artwork.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

I'm Going Au Naturel...

No, don't run screaming. It's not THAT. Let me explain.

My back has been going out for a little over a year now. My doctor thinks I have sciatica, brought on by an inflamed disc in my back. I need to get physical therapy for it, but I have to wait until the flareup peters out before I can do that. I had a disastrous consultation with an orthopedist, who proceeded to tell me three times over the course of five minutes that I need to lose weight - that will take care of my back.

I was not in the friendliest of moods to begin with, having waited for almost two hours for my consultation. When the doctor finally came into the examining room, he was distant, arrogant (he spent about 10 minutes filling me in on his illustrious resume before he asked me anything about my pain) and plain rude. I tried to explain that I'd lost about 20 pounds but was sidelined for almost four week at the time by the back injury, and he cut me off, saying, "calorie reduction is how you lose weight." Well, Dr. Personality, while calorie reduction is definitely an important part of weight loss, I don't have the metabolism is did in my 20s. Calorie reduction will give me weight loss, sure - about a quarter pound a week, without exercise. While that's great, it's frustrating. He didn't want to hear it.

I left the office in tears. He made me feel like I was this obese woman, a step away from having to be airlifted out of my bed through a window. Do I need to lose some weight? I sure do. But the doctor's attitude toward me was anything but motivational. Luckily, I turned to my friends, posted about my experience on Facebook, and received a lot of support. One friend, who's suffered back injuries over the past few years told me that "a halfway decent ortho would not make more than a passing reference to losing weight as a tactic for treatment. A good doctor would treat you with respect. A good doctor would have enough sense and experience to know that people with back issues tend to have a harder time with consistent exercise, as well as things like depression and other issues." Other friends weighed in with their experiences about rude doctors.

Recently, a good friend told me that her pediatrician told her - wither her 6-year old daughter in the room - that her daughter was overweight. Remember the good old days when doctors would consult with you (or your parent, if you were a child) in their office after an exam? How is saying something like that in front of a child anything but harmful? We have reports of children developing eating disorders in primary grades today - do we really want to encourage a trend of eating disorders this young?

And then, Prevention magazine ran an article in their July 2011 issue that was really perfect timing. "When Your Doctor Makes You Feel Fat" really spoke to my experience and let me know that I wasn't alone.

What's amazing is that years ago, doctors were coming under fire for not saying anything to morbidly obese patients about their lifestyle; now, they've taken it in the other direction and feel like they can say whatever they want to patients, under the guise of encouraging health. I call bullshit, plain and simple.

Having said all that, my back and knee are killing me. I'm not able to work out, so something's got to give. I'm going natural. I'm taking some extra vitamin supplements, sure, but I'm also making the attempt to make most of what I eat. If it's artificial, I'd like to skip it; ditto for refined sugars. If I can follow a strict regimen, even for a week or two, just to get the first few pounds off and get some relief, I can start working out again. But I've got to clean up the diet.

So while I wouldn't say that I'm starting a food blog, I'm definitely going to be reporting in with some of the healthier habits I'm cultivating. Wish me luck.