Hrdlitschka, Shelley. Sun Signs. Orca, 2005. ISBN 978-1551433387 195 pp. $7.95
Told in emails, journal entries and horoscopes, this story of a group of distance learners helping a ‘net friend with her science project tackles the adage that “on the internet, everyone is a dog.” Fifteen-year-old cancer patient Kayleigh is a Gemini who writes letters to her twin on another plane (one that she isn’t eager to join). She convinces her professor to let her study astrology and asks her fellow online classmates, all Leos, to track their horoscopes and report back to her as to the accuracy of the predictions.
Mixing issues of identity and mortality, Hrdlitschka shows that everyone has secrets to hide. Friendships develop and are challenged as truths are revealed, and two of the three teens don’t take the project seriously, skewing the results and testing the scientific method Kayleigh is required to follow. As an entertaining and lighter subplot, Kayleigh tries to determine her professor’s sign through process of elimination.
The author’s choice to make the emails realistic by interspersing a few slang terms and abbreviations is uneven and inauthentic (either use “u” or you, but stop having the same character alternate – either spell it out, or don’t! Argh!). Still, the story is engrossing and unpredictable. Kayleigh frequently calls for standard or “school” English for the reports she demands, and her journaling is always clear-voiced and her letters and emails to an astrologer who never writes back are heartbreaking. Lurlene McDaniel fans will enjoy this more complex, yet ultimately lighter fare.
Review by Beth Gallaway
Goobie, Beth. Something Girl (Orca Soundings). Orca, 2005. ISBN 978-1551433479 $7.95
For fans of Dave Pelzer’s A Child Called It (HCI, 1995) comes this heartbreaking and haunting story about a girl whose spirit and self esteem are broken by a Jekyll/Hyde father. Convinced there is something wrong with her, 15-year-old Sophie accepts his frequent and brutal beatings as her due, thinking that her unpredictable father loves her enough to discipline her so she can learn. Her alcoholic, co-dependent mother does nothing to intercede, and a teacher makes an attempt that is brushed aside. Luckily, a friend and neighbor come to the rescue when the dad finally puts her into a hospital after a severe beating: because the telephone rang while he was with a real estate client. Oh, and eating a hamburger. Seeing his daughter EAT set him off. The Canadian equivalent of DDS intervenes to save the girl, who finally recognizes she IS worth saving and IS worth something. In traditional YA novel form, the book ends with the character’s new beginning.
Goobie excels at tightly written novels that subtly reveal plot and character through perfectly chosen, perfectly placed detail. To accomplish this in such a limited space — only 105 pages — and at such accessible reading level — 2.8 — is astounding.
Children need to see titles such as these in library collections, because some of them may be living an existence close to this work of fiction. The only way the book could have been improved would be to include a few resources in a brief appendix: perhaps that will come in the Soundings teacher’s guide that I am sure is forthcoming. Highly recommended.
review by Beth Gallaway
Waters, Eric. Juice. Orca, 2005. ISBN 978-1551433516 $9.95
Michael “the Moose” Monroe has just been named MVP of the year for a season’s worth of sacks, playing with heart, and scoring the winning touchdown at the Division Two championship game, but the victory is bittersweet when his a coach and mentor announces his retirement following the team’s victory. The replacement shows up before the end of the school year and makes a lot of changes, including state-of-the-art equipment, a specialist in nutrition and bodybuilding, and homemade smoothie concoctions of milk and ice cream laced with vitamins, protein powder–and steroids. When the assistant coach approaches Michael about adding “juice” to his regime to give him an edge, he quavers, but the adult preys on Michael’s football dreams.
Like other Soundings titles, the pace is fast, plot tight, and characters boiled down to their essences. Opportunities for discussion abound–drug use, good sportsmanship, steroids in professional sports, and personal ethics all come into play.
Drama and action are balanced well and the author avoids a heavy-handed moral tone by cleverly relaying the negative side-effects of steroids as Tony shoots them down one by one during a conversation with Michael.
Less edgy than other titles, this is a book clean enough for middle school students, and is timely to boot. This hi-lo book has a reading level of 2.9 and is recommended for school and public library collections.
Wishinsky, Frieda. Queen Of The Toilet Bowl (Orca Currents). Orca, 2005. ISBN 978-1551433646 $9.95
Renata’s family has moved from Sao Paolo to the United States in search of a better life. Her mother works hard cleaning houses for her “ladies,” some of whom are the mothers of Renata’s spoiled classmates. When Renata steals the spotlight from the school’s drama queen, Karin first tries to frame Renata for theft, then finds revenge by posting a picture online–of Renata’s mom cleaning a toilet. Will Renata choose cowardice and victimhood, or pride and survival?
The middle school drama rings true: adolescent girls in real life can be as mean and self-centered as portrayed here. They can also be as loyal and forgiving. The author captures the quicksilver pace of change and delivers an important lesson without making it feel like a preachy moral.
The junior version of Orca’s successful, high quality Soundings series, Currents also features strong storytelling and issues-driven plots. This title in particular focuses on bullying and ties immigration, racism, and self-esteem into a computer age tale that lends itself well to class discussion. Characters are mostly black and white, and the action is simple and fast to accommodate a reading level of 3.6 and a complete story in only 104 pages.
Tidier in subject matter, Currents is sure to fill the bill for teen reluctant readers ages 11-15.
Marsden, Carolyn. The Quail Club. Candlewick, 2006. ISBN 9780763626358 138 pp. $
The announcement of a talent show becomes cause for concern for Thai-American Oy. Torn between pleasing her parents by doing a traditional dance of her culture, or by keeping the friendship of her clique (specifically, Liliandra) by performing a raucous American dance, Oy spends most of the book making herself miserable trying to please everyone. Should her loyalties lie with her family, or her friends? Thai words and customs add depth and authenticity to the story.
The story is a quick read; like it’s prequel The Gold Dress the themes of peer pressure, fitting in and adapting are strong. Although Liliandra’s bad behavior seems to stem from underlying issues, Oy comes off passively — not a strong message for readers dealing with bullies or mean girls in their own lives.
Grant, Vicki. Dead-End Job. Orca Soundings, 2006. ISBN 128 pp. $9.95
Aspiring artist Frances is working the late shift at a local convenience store when a customer arrives and attempts to charm her. She’s used to some of the regulars hanging around for a few minutes to warm up but something about this Devin guy isn’t quite right, plus she knows her boyfriend Leo would be jealous of another man’s attention. She ignores him, tries to befriend him and even sets him up with a friend, but he remains singularly focused and frighteningly moody, finally driving away Leo. Is Devin a harmless con artist, or mentally unbalanced enough to be dangerous?
Grant has penned a fast paced and exciting novel about a resourceful teen trying to do the right thing. She doesn’t waste limited space describing the protagonist or setting, lending versatility to the story. The title is clever, and the ending is quickly resolved in a way that leaves gory details off the page. Supporting characters are hastily drawn but Frances’s voice is strong. The book has potential for use in middle and high school settings for discussions about dating safety, and the neon cover, subject matter, 3.6 reading level and short length should find appeal with reluctant readers like other titles in the Soundings series.
Gaetz, Dayle Campbell. Spoiled Rotten. Orca Currents, 2005. ISBN 978-1551434742 128 pp. $9.95
Jessica is not adjusting well to her father’s recent remarriage to a woman who seems to be the antithesis of her nature-loving mother. To make matters worse, stepmom Patti comes with baggage: her bratty daughter named Amy who is used to getting her own way through any means necessary. A boating vacation meant to bring the family together causes more turmoil. When Jessica tries to sneak off for a solo hike, Amy is hot on her heels, but unused to the rigors of hiking.
The wilderness surrounding the scenic Powell River in British Columbia Canada becomes a threatening character, as the girls face potential grizzly bears, exposure and even falling and getting hurt. Dramatic tension is heightened as the tale evolves, with the elements waxing as the conflict between the girls wanes. Jessica’s character development is driven by the action and she emerges from being “spoilen rotten” herself to maturity and acceptance of change, making believable magnanimous gestures to indicate an improved attitude toward her new family members.
The linear plot, 2.8 reading level and first person point of view will especially appeal to reluctant readers. Although the story has enough adventure to hold a boy’s attention in spite of the (strong) female protagonists, the hot pink cover may be a deterrent.
Weaver, Will. Full Service. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005. ISBN 978-0374324858 240 pp. 240 $20
Farmer boy Paul decides to get a job in town even though he really can’t be spared; mom supports him because she thinks he needs exposure to real people and the real world beyond the isolating life on the farm. He lands a job at a Shell Oil Station, where his training on the essential points of Shell Service come with an urban legend that Mr. Shell could show up anytime and award a money prize on the spot to an employee who demonstrates above and beyond customer service in the Shell way.
A number of characters pull into the gas station in the summer of ’65. Paul meets hippies, popular crowd schoolmates, a hit man and regular folks too, and accomplishes his mother’s goal of “meeting the public” in eye-opening fashion. The setting is a vehicle to show a gap in attitude between Paul and his father, and also demonstrates that everything changes, it all stays the same. Parents want their children to lead better lives, everyone remembers the impact of their first job, and sometimes, that guy or girl you like likes someone else … but you like him or her too much not to help him or get the one s/he loves.
This coming of age story has a place in most library collections.
Walsh, Ann. Flower Power. Orca Currents, 2005. ISBN 978-1551433868 106 pp. $8.95
When the next door neighbor threatens to cut down the tree bordering the property of the two homes to make room for a garage for his mid-life crisis motorcycle, Callie’s mom protests by chaining herself to the treehouse, a relic from her own childhood. Chaos and humor ensues with chanting bikers, singing grannies, a helpful local reporter angling for an exclusive, and Callie’s schoolmates looking to get famous on television.
Callie is charming, caught at the tender age where she both loves her mom and is completely embarrassed by her. This resourceful young lady comes up with a clever solution to save the day and the tree.
It’s difficult to pack plot, character and setting into just 106 pages, but Walsh does so quite competently. The brief length is perfect for reluctant readers. A solid choice for middle school fiction.
Trembath, Don. Rooster. Orca, 2005. ISBN 978-1551432618 208 pp. $11.95
Underachiever Rooster is too smart to let slip through the system, so his exasperated English teacher finds a way to both punish him for his misbehaviors in class and allow him to graduate, dependent on his success at this new assignment: he can volunteer at rec center, where he’ll work with a group of mentally disabled adults who want to bring their bowling league to the Special Olympics. Getting along with the principal’s daughter who is also assigned to work on this project with Rooster is an additional challenge. Will he rise to the occasion or drop the ball?
In spite of the choices Rooster makes, he is a sympathetic character. The adult characters are distinct and are portrayed as his equals. Rooster grows as a person through this opportunity, but the story lacks depth and occasionally drags. Shifting point of view may be responsible for the detraction from Rooster’s internal monologue; Trembath could have limited to the protagonist’s perspective to show Rooster’s talent for writing, instead of having his teacher tell us he excels at writing. The ending is predictable. Still, this realistic, bad boy tale will have appeal to reluctant readers.