Rodowsky, Colby. Not Quite a Stranger. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003. ISBN 978-0374355487 192 pp. $
When a boy who looks disconcertingly like her father shows up on her doorstep, 13-year-old Charlotte a.k.a Tottie is furious at the disruption to her seemingly idyllic life. Children often have trouble thinking of their parents as sexual beings, and Zachary is in-her-face proof that her father had a relationship prior to his marriage. While Tottie struggles with this reality, Zach is contending not only with a new ready-made family but also coping with the recent death of his mother while attempting to develop a relationship with a father he has never known. Family is redefined in this novel about the realities of blood relationships.
The two-sided telling offers both sides of the story. Distinctly voiced chapters alternate between Tottie and Zach to give the reader gets a clear understanding of how both characters feel. Eventually, Tottie and Zach come to understand one another. So often, families gloss over issues or sweep things under the carpet. This family comes out in the open. It is refreshing that Tottie not only breaks down at the end and says how she really feels, but also finds a way to resolve her feelings.
The emotions feel genuine, the story and characters are empathetic and real, and the plot is well resolved. Not a necessity, but a nice addition to middle school collections; perhaps the paperback will have a more attractive cover.
Polak, Monique. Home Invasion. Orca, 2005. ISBN 978-1551434827128 pp. $
Josh is struggling to accept his mother’s new husband, a scatterbrained artist who experiments with traditional recipes and signs Josh up for basketball camp so he can have quiet to paint. He dislikes Clay for not being his dad, and they have nothing in common. Josh longs for what he perceives as a real family-–two parents who give him the love and attention he needs. He finds solace (and an adrenaline rush) in sneakily observing neighbors to find the happiness he thinks everyone else has.
It ’s bad timing for breaking and entering though no matter how innocent the reason – it turns out that a burglar is breaking into neighborhood homes and terrorizing families! Josh can understand a little bit why the guy enjoys the rush, but if he isn’t careful, he’s going to find himself as a prime suspect.
Polak delivers a tightly written about developing new relationships, learning to trust, and taking responsibility. Subplots include a possible love interest; a girl whose family life isn’t as idyllic as it seems. Like other Soundings titles, Home Invasion presents a realistic teen with a problem that lends itself well to discussion. The pivotal scene is a bit too coincidental to be believed but empowers the protagonist while resolving the story neatly, if conveniently, in just over 100 pages.
Cooper, Ilene. Jack: The Early Years of John F. Kennedy. Dutton, 2003. ISBN 978-0525469230 160 pp. $
It is amazing that a man who was only president for two years and ten months had such a profound effect on a nation, and that his life is still so widely read about and researched. Cooper’s biography, with its’ extensive collection of well-chosen and captioned black and white images on nearly every page, is excellent in it’s singular focus on the youth of JFK.
Chronological from birth to college, with a final chapter on the presidency and the assassination, Cooper zeros in on the competition between first and second son’s Joe Jr. and Jack, a father’s determination for having only winners in the family, and the family’s history in politics as keys to Jack’s success. She also gives us an overview of the family dynasty and the entire Kennedy clan.
Primary sources are heavily used, and the many quotes from a variety of people who knew the family, as well as from Kennedys themselves, tell most of the story. But the narrative goes beyond the factual; Cooper writes in an anecdotal style about her subject and goes a step further to analyze the pivotal moments that made the man who overcame sickliness, sibling rivalry, and the stigma of Irish Catholicism to become a leader of the free world.
Although all of the facts about JFK ring true and Cooper documents her meticulous research with source annotations from each chapter, she is incorrect in her description of the Irish Potato Famine that brought the ancestors of Jack to the United States. Whitish-green spots formed on the leaves of the plants, not on the tubers themselves, which turned dark brown, black or purplish on the inside. Since she cites Susan Campbell Bartoletti’s Black Potatoes (Houghton, 2001) as her source, I am surprised at this error.
Shulman, Mark. illus. by Tamara Petrosino. AA Is for Aardvark. Sterling, 2005. ISBN 978-1402728716 32 pp. $
Sterling Publishing branches out into picture books with this innovative alphabet book focusing on words with double letters such as aardvark, trekking, egg and puzzle. The concept is reinforced with the illustrations; for example, the illustration for DD is a bear driving through the puddle: ducks swim in puddles surrounded by signs reading “No WaDDling in the MiDDle of the MuDDy Road,” while J is for “Just Jacks” an image of two jackrabbits on cards and NN is for buNNy standing next to a tin of carrots labeled “SoNNy’s CaNNed DiNNer.”
Clearly, the kids who get the jokes will be the ones who already know the alphabet–so who is this title really for? Some letters are a stretch, such as WW for http://www.kitty.cat, OO for toodle-oo and VV for skivvies. The illustrations are cartoony and sometimes clever and amusing, but neither the writing or illustration stands out beyond mediocre. An optional purchase.
Gherman, Beverly. First Son and President: A Story about John Quincy Adams (Creative Minds Biographies). Millbrook Press, 2005. ISBN 978-1575057569 64 pp. $
In the author’s challenge to cram a lot of information into only 64 pages, the writing quality sometimes descends into a fast paced catalog of where John Quincy went and when and what he learned while there, and the offices he held from student to ambassador to secretary of state to president to representative. Details about his exciting and dangerous first voyage on the ship Boston to Paris, France and a menu of the celebratory dinner after John Quincy’s graduation from Harvard round out the narrative and give readers a sense of the times.
Describing him as man ahead of his times, Gherman reveals his love for science and abhorrence of slavery that made him unpopular, yet eventually came to pass. She convincingly portrays that his life in politics was truly a service to the people and to the United States.
The pencil illustrations add little to the text; some exciting scenes are described, and yet the artist always opts for tame. Rather than seeing the storm at sea, we get a tilted view of a cabin, and instead of a bickering Congress, we see John Quincy before the Supreme Court.
Although John Quincy kept many diaries and wrote extensively about his own life (over 60,000 papers and reports not including letters!), the only primary source listed in the bibliography is a collection of correspondence between he and his mother. All of the quotes appear to be from this source. No timeline or photos make this a secondary choice for school reports.
Grover, Lorie Ann. Loose Threads. Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2002. ISBN 978-0689844195 296 pp. $
A strong debut novel that reaches close to the sparkle of Mel Glenn and the complexity of Abelove’s Saying it Out Loud, this novel in poems about what happens to a family of four strong women when Grandma Margie develops breast cancer falls somewhere between Lurlene McDaniel tearjerker and Sonya Sones brilliant.
Kay Gerber, smack dab in the middle of puberty, finds that she worries about issues she knows her friends will never have to deal with, and the poems, written in her clear and clever voice impart her hopes and anxieties in the midst of school assignments and family card games. Some of the best poems happen when Kay, obviously preoccupied by her grandmother’s condition while in school, finds herself thinking in terms of cancer in all of her classes, creating a black mask with red stitches in art and in “Pre-algebra Now: an equation: “X can only be one number./ Y can only be one number/for the perfect equation./If X is Grandma Margie,/and Y is health, / then the perfect equation/equals/life.”
The inevitable reference to Amazonian archers is here alongside the mother who doesn’t tell the rest of the family about her own lump scare until she discovers it is benign. The befriending of the school scapegoat allows Kay to take some action instead of remaining a passive character. The crochet motif is beautifully woven in from title to the first poem the last poem, and the novel leaves off where every good YA novel should: on the brink of a commencement. The dialogue poems don’t work quite as well as the strictly narrative ones, but the emotion is there if the fine-tuning isn’t. This book with high girl appeal is not a necessity; purchase where poetry is popular.
McDaniel, Lurlene. The Time Capsule. Laurel Leaf, 2005. ISBN 978-0553494310 244 pp. $
McDaniel’s tearjerker focuses on a set of twins, Adam and Alexis, who, as seniors in high school, have just been invited to a reunion to open a time capsule created in kindergarten. Back then, Alexis wanted to help others, while Adam dreamed of becoming a fireman. But Adam’s first bout of leukemia at age eleven splintered the family that rallied around him, and their parents now spend more time at work than at home. Alexis wants her life to return to the happier times of the past, before Adam got sick, when her parents still seemed to love one another. Now, Adam’s leukemia has severely relapsed, and it doesn’t look as though he will live to achieve his dream. This time, will his illness reunite the family instead of driving it apart?
Initially, McDaniel uses the bond between twins very effectively; they read one another’s minds and finish each other’s sentences. It isn’t until Adam collapses that Alexis gets a premonition that he is in trouble, even though all the hints that Adam is sick are there: weight loss, hiding bruises, lack of energy. Alexis remains naively in the dark until her brother bluntly tells her he is out of options, and that the last cycle of medications not only didn’t send the cancer into remission, but have permanently damaged his liver, which is failing. Although this makes for some dramatic moments in the plot, it is not believable that someone as smart as Ally can be so dumb about her sibling’s condition, in spite of how wrapped up the overextended young woman is with debate club, her boyfriend, and trying to discern if divorce is in the air. This is not up to par with McDaniel’s earlier works, but will be loved by fans nonetheless.