Ferris, Jean. Eight Seconds. Harcourt, 2000. ISBN 978-0152023676 192 pp. $
John thinks that when he had open-heart surgery as a child, maybe the doctors forget to replace an essential piece, because he doesn’t want to marry Kelsey, his girlfriend who is pushing for an after-graduation commitment. Eager to escape, John is thrilled when his dad signs him up for rodeo camp, where he discovers an odd and deep kinship with Kit.
Upon his return home, John is stunned to learn that the confident and poised young man is openly gay at his college. John is forced to make fast and tough choices about his views on homosexuality as the news spreads. The local bully, Russ, begins tormenting Kit at local rodeos–and then finds John guilty by association. In a startling climax, John blames Kit for his confusion and scapegoathood and attacks him, pushed over the edge by Russ’s comments.
It takes a little too long for the protagonist to realize what the reader already suspects: that John, too, may be gay. His inner turmoil is only beginning when the book ends. To give her credit, Ferris doesn’t take the easy way out, and the ending is not what most readers will be rooting for, but it is a fitting one that will hopefully tug at heartstrings and increase awareness and tolerance.
The book is a step in the right direction for teaching tolerance and breaking down stereotypes. The cover art is a bit juvenile. The cowboy on the cover looks like a scrawny kid in a too-big hat, and may be a turnoff to teens, and they will miss out on a wonderful story about the things you can’t control–and the things you can. Eight Seconds is definitely another contender for best books for young adults from Ferris, and the subject matter itself demands purchase; libraries with small budget may want to wait for the paperback in the hopes of a more attractive cover.
Branley, Franklyn Mansfield. Is There Life in Outer Space? Harper Collins, 1999. ISBN 97978-0064451925 40 pp. $
By relating famous hoaxes such as the radio broadcast of H.G. Well’s War of the Worlds and discussing recent space probes to Mars, Mercury and Venus, Branley comes to the conclusion that there might be life beyond Earth… but not in our solar system. While he admits there may be possibilities of life in other galaxies, he claims there most likely isn’t life in our solar system except for what exists on Earth. This is an outdated and inaccurate view.
The goal of the series is to introduce basic science concepts to young children, but the only concept I came away with was very Earth-centric–none of our species could live on Mars, ergo, there is no life on Mars. Branley never defines life. In truth, we cannot assume “life” to be carbon based, requiring warm temperatures and sunlight. In fact, on our very own planet we have found species that do not require these things. Instead of writing “there is no life on Mars,” Branley might have written, “There is no life as we know it today on Mars.” If this idea is too scary for young children, perhaps there isn’t a need for a low-level book on this topic.
At the very least, the book serves as a jumping off point for an interesting discussion. The authorial intrusion in the book (“People also say it’s silly to believe there is life on them [other planets:]. I don’t think so.”) is annoying and condescending. The writing is too simplified; children could handle more details than are given about the planets, the space program, and the various ways alien life has been envisioned in our culture.
The illustrations are a bizarre mix of simple brightly colored collage style pictures and photographs. The diagram of the solar system is great, and whimsical aliens decorate the end papers and many pages. A page of further activities concludes the book. No works are cited, no resources for more information are listed. A glossary, index and timeline would have been appropriate inclusions. This book was originally published in 1984; it needs much more overhaul than it received.
Slangerup, Erik Jon illus. by John Manders. Dirt Boy. Albert Whitman & Co, 2000 ISBN 978-0807516171 32 pp.
When Mom tries to force filthy Fister Farnello into the tub, he rebels and runs off into the woods and lives in his own filth with his new friend Dirt Man. A fun concept falls flat with text bland enough to be left out entirely. “Fister Farnello loved dirt” begins this picture book, and right away, I thought, why didn’t Slangerup say he “dug” dirt? Although the editor/author attempts to jazz things up by playing with the text (bold, capitals, etc.) the writing is medicore at best and the author tells instead of showing.
The descriptions of Dirt Boy at his worst are redeeming, but the illustration still captures the scene much more effectively. The pictures, mostly earth-tones, are wonderful, and stand alone to tell the story. Perspectives and mood vary greatly; illustrations show a closeup of a joyful Fister grasping a muddy worm and a larger than life giant sprawling off the page. In one sad blue tranquil scene, Mother languishes in a chair, snoozing and hoping for the return of her wild child, and a blast from the hose bowls Fister over and shoos the birds from their nests in his snarled hair. Details like scissors, rubber gloves, and bottles and bars of soap drive home Slangerup’s humorous itinerary of what is needed to make Fister clean again, and a squeaky clean Fister admits to the delight of washing the dirt off.
If you share this one in storytime, you may as well skip the text. Show during a unit on mud or hygiene, and serve up with gummi worms in chocolate pudding & oreo dirt.
Springer, Nancy. Sky Rider. Harper Teen, 2000. ISBN 978-0380795659 117 pp. $
Lurlene McDaniel meets Bonnie Bryant in this short read about horses, justice and angels. 14-year-old Dusty’s life can’t seem to get much worse: she suffers from chronic back pain, the result of a driving accident that her drunk of a father was responsible for. She misses her deceased mother terribly, and the horse she loves is about to euthanized. Then a handsome and angry boy the color of moonlight appears and leads her suffering horse away to a pain free place. Dusty realizes the mysterious stranger is Skye Ryder, the boy who was killed in a bizarre accident on her father’s property–and he wants revenge. Can she help Skye turn to healing instead of hating and hurting and thus save his soul?
The haunting story progresses at a fast clip. Springer’s writing is showcased in a variety of points of view, and the text is broken up with log reports and diary entries. The idea that Dusty loves Skye so quickly and completely is a bit implausible, but if readers can believe in angels, why not this too? The predictable ending is satisfying nonetheless.
The cover blends the genres of the book flawlessly–a horse has a ghostly glow and the font and placement of the title is reminiscent of a sci-fi movie. A solid choice for reluctant readers, this slim book may fulfill book report assignments as well as satisfy fans of horses, mystery, and the supernatural.
Rivers, Karen. Dream Water. Orca, ISBN pp. $
Both a statement on the keeping wild animals in captivity and a psychological novel about the after-effects of acts of violence, Rivers has written a tense and tight novel about freedom. Two Canadian teens struggle to cope with a shocking incident at a childhood field-trip to the Seaquarium. Holden, newly reunited with his ailing and addict mother, fears water and seeks escape in painting and abuses alcohol. Cassie, emotionally estranged from her naïve psychiatrist parents, dances and suffers from nightmares. Imprisoned by the memories that haunt them, together they find catharsis that leads to healing through their art, through talking, and through their relationship with one another. The author’s agenda to raise awareness is very clear, yet never overpowers the story. A zealous anti-captivity science teacher provides a natural opportunity for Cassie and her friend Sina to talk about the situation of killer whales in aquariums.
The book has a few minor flaws. In spite of the fact that Holden’s mother is dying of AIDS, condoms are never mentioned in the sparsely detailed, brief and fluid sex scene between Holden and Cassie. Cassie’s parents are unbelievably inconsiderate at every turn, almost Dahl-esque, but Holden’s parents make up for it by being more complex. Impressively, each detail, scene and character has a purpose, furthers the plot, and is pertinent. The novel ends on an hopeful note for the characters, but the epilogue has an ominous tone for the thousands of mistreated whales still kept in confined in too-small pools. Surprisingly, no contact information for animal rights activist groups is provided.
Sherwood Smith. Journey to Otherwhere (Voyage of the Basset). Random House, 2000. ISBN 9780375800511 224 pp. $
This fantasy tale with an old-fashioned flavor is set in England at the turn of the century or start of the Industrial Revolution.
Meddler and inventor-wanna-be Bradford Ellis takes Lucy Beale under his wing, determined to benefit the poor seamstress at his father’s school with a classical education during the summer holiday. As part of their education, the two are invited to tour a ship, which takes them on a journey to the Lands of Legend where imagination, not progress and intellect, rule.
The text is unexciting and the premise weak. Because there is little history or explanation behind the magic, the story has no backbone. Lucy is the only fleshed out character with a history, hopes and dreams, and a skill at sewing that materializes into a real occupation. Brad is immature and frustrating, and it is predictable that he finally “gets it” and realizes that Progress is not the key to everything.
Poe, Edgar Allen, illus. by Bill Fountain The Tell Tale Heart. Mojo Press, 1995. ISBN 978-1885418036 pp. $
This slim volume reinvents Poe through illustration, most strikingly when the artist interprets the narrator of The Tell Tale Heart as a female servant revealing herself through dialogue, and the voice rings eerily true. Also included in this graphic novel version are favorites such as the Bells and Annabel Lee, illustrated with dark gothic flair. A must have for any graphic novel collection, and a fine compliment to other Poe collections–but good luck finding it!