Thursday, August 29, 2013

The 14 Fibs of Gregory K. by Greg Pincus

Eleven-year-old Gregory Korenstein-Jasperton really likes writing - but no one in his immediate family knows it. His dad, his older brother Owen (often simply called O), and his little sister Kay are all really good at math. Really good. And while Greg gets basic math just fine, his head starts to spin when his relatives and teachers start discussing more complex mathematical theorems. He'd rather be hanging out with his best friend Kelly at The Slice, her mom's bakery/coffee shop, eating a piece of warm apple pie while they read each other's stories. Kelly can't wait to go to Author's Camp, and Greg lets her believe that he's going to go, too. He'd love to spend the summer writing, but he knows his parents would rather he attend Math is Magic Camp. ("Dad, I don't want my days to be 'mathemagical.' Please.") His family really does mean well, and so does Greg - they just want different things.

It's time for Greg to bring his math grade up. His friendly math teacher Mr. Davis gives Greg a journal so he can write about math - what he thinks about it, times when he found math it in the real world, how he can and does actually use it more often than he thinks - and improve both his understanding and his grade. Meanwhile, Greg finds himself saying he's going to enter the City Math competition, hoping it will make his parents happy even though he really doesn't want to do it. His dad won the City Math competition the first year it was held, and his brother has won the event multiple times. Greg holds his tongue, not even telling Kelly, or Mr. Davis, or his mom, a woman know for her enthusiasm and her...interesting Wednesday night dinner concoctions, about what he's really going on. As the school year races on and it gets closer and closer to deadlines and event times, Greg grows increasingly worried that he's going to disappoint everyone, especially his dad and his teacher. Along the way, he discovers the Fibonacci sequence, and is surprised to find a way to combine his love of writing with his math project.

The 14 Fibs of Gregory K. is a story about learning to follow your heart. Greg Pincus' debut novel is filled with scribbles, secrets, slices of pie - and π pi! Though Greg deliberately or impulsively doesn't tell the whole truth sometimes, it's important to note that he isn't a compulsive liar. Instead, he's the type of person who will side-step questions and avoid certain subjects and conversations as much as he can for as long as he can. And who doesn't do that when they're uncomfortable, or ashamed, thinking they aren't living up to the expectations of people they care about, people they are trying to impress or comfort? Greg has a good heart, and readers will feel for him from page one. Kids who are passionate about their favorite hobbies or have secret talents of their own will want Greg to talk about the write stuff with his family and friends, and will be satisfied with the ending of his story. (Though they'll probably want Pincus to write a spin-off about Kelly, or maybe a book about Kay. I know I'd read both!)

For more of my thoughts on the book, visit my blog, Bildungsroman.

Monday, August 26, 2013

The False Prince by Jennifer A. Nielsen

Sage is an orphan and a thief, always on the run from trouble. But this time, when he is caught by a nobleman named Conner, he can't run any farther.

The kingdom of Carthya is on the brink of civil war. Factions are forming—different groups plotting to take over the throne—and Conner has been carefully laying plans, looking for someone to pose as the long-missing Carthyan prince. Sage finds himself unwillingly entered into a dangerous competition with several other orphans, all aiming to outdo the others and win Conner’s favor.

The stakes are high. After all, only one false prince is needed—only one boy can win the competition to be the (fake) Carthyan heir, and no way will Conner let any of the unlucky losers spill the beans about his scheme. Sage has no particular desire to ascend the throne but if he wants to stay alive, he must play along with Conner's game.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Apache Superhero Kickin' Butt, and Taking Names

Even before this summer's box office flop of The Lone Ranger, the issue of Native appropriation has haunted writers. Stereotype, thy name is Laura Ingalls Wilder's "savages," Twilight's fantastical sidekick, Jacob, and every other racially problematic representation of broken English speaking, nature-communing, peace-pipe smoking, peyote-tripping, Native character with a braid full of feathers.

So, it was with a little bit of trepidation that I received a copy of KILLER OF ENEMIES, by Joseph Bruchac. I mean, it sounded so typical: a story about an Apache girl being her tribe's designated killer of enemies... whose favorite weapon is .357 Magnum... and who survives in this post-apocalyptic landscape to serve her scarred and insane genetically modified leaders...

Um, wait. On second thought... not THAT typical...

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Get Out of your own Backyard

There's a whole world out there. You probably already knew that already, but in case you are like I was in high school, I thought I might make the point directly.

I grew up and went to high school in a small, highly homogenous town and while my teachers didn't exactly hide the fact that we were part of a larger, more diverse world, they certainly didn't emphasize the point, particularly not in my literature classes which featured, Shakespeare, Hardy and a slew of American writers mostly from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Not that these are bad people to read. I've grown to love Whitman and Dickinson and Hawthorne and someday I may even convince my brain to enjoy Melville. But the thought of reading something in translation or from a foreign country other than the one with the Hobbits seemed completely anathema to those creating curriculum.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013


Perhaps you have heard of Neil Gaiman before - he's written some rather popular books for kids, such as Coraline and The Graveyard Book, which, if you've read them, probably strike you as "for all ages", really, since there is so much smartness and cleverness (not quite the same thing) and humor and horror inside the pages that surely they make as much sense to teens and adults as to children. Or perhaps you've heard about his rather popular books for adults, including Stardust, the Sandman graphic novels, or American Gods and its successor, Anansi Boys. There are other books in both categories, of course, as well as picture books and such, but the salient point is that it's likely you've heard of him before now.

If you've heard of him, then you know that Neil Gaiman is a Captain of Fantasy (a title I have just now created for him): one of those writers who can write fearlessly about the sorts of things that make us afraid. The sorts of things you never even considered fearing before, but that are pretty terrifying to consider. And they exist in magical worlds that exist just on the margins of the everyday world we inhabit. In Stardust, there was a wall that separated Wall, England, from a magical kingdom beyond, in which witches and even stars were real, living beings. In The Graveyard Book, the being to fear was not a ghost or a vampire (those were actually quite friendly sorts), but a hit-man sent to kill a small child. And in Coraline, the thing to fear was a being known as the Other Mother, a shapeless, formless, powerful sort of being that was able to assume a form and create an entire parallel world in an effort to capture Coraline's soul.

His current book opens with an epigraph from Maurice Sendak: "I remember my own childhood vividly. I knew terrible things. But I knew I mustn't let adults know I knew. It would scare them."

It's a worthy warning for what is to come.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane shares some of the devices I mentioned in his earlier works: the narrator, a grown man, returns home to Sussex, England, where he recollects a story that happened in his youth. It starts out in our usual, everyday world, but quickly moves into some other sort of realm - involving some women, the Hempstock women, who are not quite the farmers they seem, and a preternatural being.

Let me be clear: This is decidedly a book for adults (and teens, in my opinion), despite the fact that much of the story being related transpired when the narrator was a child. Besides nudity (remember, it's a print book, not a graphic novel, so it is whatever you imagine it to be), there are decidedly grown-up concepts in the book. Including a rather interesting discussion of whether grown-ups exist, plus a look at what father/son relationships are like, and how they can leave a mark. There are questions, such as whether we are our bodies, or whether we are something else that exists within our bodies. And there is, in case you hadn't already worked it out, magic.

To sum up: The Ocean at the End of the Lane is about eternity and knowledge, about good and bad, existence and being. It is about all of those things, and none of those things, and about magic. And you should read it.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Boy Nobody by Allen Zadoff

I'm nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there's a pair of us — don't tell!
They'd banish us, you know.
                   Emily Dickinson

Boy Nobody insinuates himself into the lives of his targets. Gains the trust of someone close. Comes complete with a plausible backstory. Leaves quietly after the mission is accomplished. No family. No friends. No attachments. No questions asked.

The ultimate assassin. And only a teenager.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Harris and Me, by Gary Paulsen

I can't help myself! I keep reviewing books by Gary Paulsen. But he's just so good! How good? Harris and Me reminds me of Tom Sawyer (The book, not movie.), that's how good. It also reminds me of another of Paulsen's books, How Angel Peterson Got His Name. If you liked that one, you owe it to yourself to read Harris and Me.

A young city boy is sent to spend the summer on his aunt and uncle's farm. Though he has lived many places over the years, he has never experienced anything like farm life . . . and he has never met anyone like Harris, his daredevil of a cousin (Publishers blurb).

I didn't know I was in love until it was all over and it was too late to do anything about it...

She had wide blue eyes and blond hair in braids that hung down her back, and she smiled and didn't look away when I looked at her, and I thought I would die.

"Hi. I'm Elaine...

"I've been staying with my grandmother in North Dakota..."

She said it like it was another country and I thought I might tell her that I had lived in the Philippines... and in Texas and had seen California and pretty much everything in between but nothing, absolutely nothing came out.

I don't know how long we could have gone on like that, her talking, me with my tongue clove to the roof of my mouth, wishing I could disappear, but time kicked in and took over. It was late... and the rest of the kids came out of the back room.

Harris spied me instantly and took in the situation in a glance. He came up to the table -- the ubiquitous bottle of orange pop in his hand -- and plunked down in a chair.

I made eye motions at him to leave but he ignored them and spoke to Elaine.

"How do you like my cousin?"

She smiled. "He seems nice."

Harris shook his head. "That's what I thought but he ain't right."

I pushed at his shoulder.

"What do you mean?" she asked.

"In the head. He ain't right. It was something to do with when he was borned. They cut the cord too fast or something and his brain didn't get into the light. Brains got to get into the light or they don't work right. You remember that Severson kid? How he kept leaning left and ate his snot all the time?" Harris pointed at me with his chin. "It's the same with him."

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Texts From Bennett by Mac Lethal

Mac Lethal is a rapper.  Since he’s also a white guy, people like to ask him if he wants to be “the next Eminem.”  He’d rather be the first himself—a dedicated, verbose, and conscious rapper.  He has a pretty good life—a nice house, a loving (if high-maintenance) fiancée from the right side of the tracks, and a career that’s well on its way up.  Then Bennett shows up.

Bennett is Mac’s cousin.  He’s seventeen years old, spends most of his time stoned, talks like the ultimate gangsta, and claims to be “thirteen percent black.”  He too is a rapper (albeit one with no skill), fixated on the worst “hos and bling” aspects of the genre.  In short, he is everything Mac is not.  He is also, however, family, and when family gets kicks out of its house and arrives at yours, its hazed-out mother and conspiracy-nut not-quite-stepfather in tow, you don’t leave it on the streets.  Even if that would probably be a better idea than letting it stay.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Surpassing the Creepy Standard

As a kid, I always hungered for good ghost stories. Not horror, mind you. I wasn't all that interested in blood and gore and zombies (though I developed an appreciation for that sort of thing later), but I was all about spooky, creepy interactions with the supernatural.

Good ghost stories for kids, though, were surprisingly hard to find. I'd scour the library shelves or I'd order something from Scholastic with a promising name like The Haunting of Sand Hill. The author would then go about setting up passably spooky things like shimmerings in the distance and creaking floorboards. But the final chapters were invariably disappointing, outlining Scooby-doo like explanations that revealed there was nothing supernatural going on at all. The shimmering was always an illusion caused by a heat wave or something. Lame.

The state of supernatural literature for children has markedly broadened in the years since I was a kid and that instinct to provide rational explanations for spooky events has waned. But it's still sometimes hard to find a good ghost story, one with the right amount of creepy that doesn't descend into either a lot of cheap scares or long-winded nonsense about "crossing to the other side."

Holly Black's Doll Bones, though, is the kind of ghost story I was, and still have been, looking for.