Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Book Review: The Pigman, by Paul Zindel (HarperTeen, 2005 edition)

Recommended for ages 12-16

High school sophomores John and Lorraine make prank telephone calls to amuse themselves and their friends. One day, they call Angelo Pignati pretending to be a charity looking for donations; Mr. Pignati, a lonely man, starts a conversation that leads to an unlikely friendship. Mr. Pignati - called the Pigman both for his last name and his collection of pig figurines - is a widower grieving the loss of his wife, and spends his days going to the zoo to feed a baboon named Bobo and spending time (and money) on his new friends.

John is too eager to let the Pigman spend money on him, but Lorraine has a slightly greater moral center and expresses some guilt and hesitation over the Pigman's gifts. They both find themselves developing affectionate feelings for the Pigman, but when he is hospitalized after a heart attack, they make themselves too comfortable in his home, eating his food and ultimately throwing a party that ends up with the destruction of the Pigman's property. The Pigman arrives home from the hospital and witnesses the destruction just as the police arrive. The events of the party lead to an aftermath that leads John and Lorraine to write their story in the hopes of easing their own consciences.

Published in 1968, The Pigman remains relevant, with characters who act and speak like believable teens. Told in a first-person narrative John and Lorraine alternate chapters, giving readers insight into who they are: John is sarcastic and witty; Lorraine is John's guilt-ridden foil. The Pigman, a lonely old man in search of human contact, generates sympathy in the reader. The difficult relationships each of the teens have wiith their parents will resonate with readers.

The Pigman has been designated as an American Library Association (ALA) Notable Children's Book, ALA Best of the Best Books for Young Adults, a Horn Book Fanfare Honor List (1969), New York Times Outstanding Children's Books of 1968, and Book World's Best Children's Books of 1968.

Author Paul Zindel's website offers information about the author, all of his books, and information for teachers, including links to several study guides.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Book Review; Breadcrumbs, by Anne Ursu (Erin McGuire, ill.) (Walden Pond Press, 2011)

Recommended for ages 9-12

Fifth graders Hazel and Jack are best friends until the day Jack decides he wants to be around boys more than a girl. Hazel is miserable at the loss of her friend, but when Jack disappears, she is the only one who ventures into the mysterious woods to find him, and get him back from the White Queen – whether or not he wants to come home.

Breadcrumbs is a trip through fairy tales and middle-grade stories that many readers will be familiar with, all surrounding a retelling of the classic tale of the Snow Queen. The characters are fifth graders who actually act their age; they are fully fleshed out with backgrounds that touch on issues that many readers will be familiar with – multiculturalism, adoption, divorce and remarriage, depression, and the pain of loss and how to move past it. There is a little bit of magic in every world, and Breadcrumbs brings that to life in the form of the main characters’ imaginations and in the more literal, magical forest sense. Erin McGuire’s black and white illustrations bring the chill of the cold forest, particularly the Snow Queen, to life and enhance the text. Compulsively readable, the book also provides numerous opportunities to enhance classroom discussions on topical issues or on a fairy tale unit.

Breadcrumbs is a 2011 Cybils award nominee for Middle Grade Science Fiction/Fantasy. Author Anne Ursu’s webpage offers information about Breadcrumbs and all of Ms. Ursu’s books, plus updated news and appearance information and links to social media.

Book Review: The Cheshire Cheese Cat: A Dickens of a Tale, by Carmen Agra Deedy & Randall Wright (Barry Moser, ill.) (Peachtree Publishers, 2011)

Recommended for ages 9-12
Skilley is a street cat who finds himself hired by Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, a pub in Victorian London where writers like Charles Dickens find themselves inspired to write. Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese makes some of the best cheese in the kingdom, and they’ve got a bit of a mouse problem. It should be a dream job for Skilley, but he has a secret – he doesn’t like to eat mice. He prefers cheese, truth be told. Skilley and the mice of Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, led by young Pip, work out an arrangement that should keep the staff at the Cheese fooled and Skilley’s belly fed until Pinch – a nasty street cat who’s had run-ins with Skilley before – shows up. Afraid that Pinch will discover his secret, Skilley finds his friendship with Pip at risk and Maldwyn, another guest of the Cheshire, in danger.

The Cheshire Cheese Cat is one of those stories that is just a fun, great read. The authors managed to create a morality tale and a story of friendship that has appeal to a huge age range. It would be a great read-aloud to younger grades, with anthropomorphic characters to keep them interested, and older readers will appreciate the dilemmas Skilley finds himself confronted with: unlikely friendships and looking “cool” in front of one’s peers among them. The characters, human and animal alike, are fleshed out and their interactions have depth. Inserting historical characters like Charles Dickens, who finds himself interested in the goings-on at the Cheese – goings-on that human patrons seem to miss – make the tale more fun, as does the visit from the “surprise guest” teased at the beginning of the book. Black and white illustations by Barry Moser add to the enjoyment and give the readers a little more grease for the imagination’s wheels.

The Cheshire Cheese Cat website offers information about Victorian London, Charles Dickens, The Cheshire Cheese, and more historical references found in the book. A fun page on Cheshire Cheese, thought to be the oldest cheese in England, provides the history of the cheese and recipes and would be a fun addition to any classes reading the book. Author Carmen Agra Deedy maintains a blog where she also maintains a list of events and appearances, awards and nominations, and her other books.