Bamboo People

Bamboo People by Mitali Perkins

Set in modern Burma, this novel is the story of two teen boys on opposite sides of the conflict between the Burmese and the Karenni, one of Burma’s ethnic minorities.  Chiko’s father has been arrested for opposing the Burmese government.  Now Chiko and his mother have no money to survive on, so Chiko heads out to be tested for a teaching position.  But the test was a trap, and Chiko is taken into the Burmese army training to become a soldier.  There he uses his wits to survive, befriending a street boy, who knows much more about fighting and survival than he does.  When the time comes to allow his friend to head to the jungle on a dangerous mission, Chiko steps up and offers himself instead.  Through that mission, he is rescued by Tu Reh, a Karenni teen, who has hated the Burmese ever since they burned down his village.  Now Chiko’s life is in the hands of Tu Reh, who sees him only as the enemy.  This book is about the bravery it takes to make decisions that turn boys into men, learning that compassion is the only way forward.

Beautifully written, Perkins has captured a complicated situation in a way that young readers will not only understand but will be drawn to.  Rather than using alternating chapters for the two points of view, Perkins tells the first part of the book from Chiko’s point of view and then Tu Reh enters in the second half.  This lends a great cohesiveness to the story, allowing readers to view the conflict from both sides, understand both, and at the same time get enough in-depth time with each character to see through their eyes. 

Perkins excels at depicting foreign cultures through sounds, scents, and tastes.  Food is used to convey the differences and similarities of cultures.  There are no long paragraphs of description here, instead readers are treated to details woven into the story that bring the entire book to life.  This is done with a skill that makes it seem effortless. 

Her characterizations are also done with the same grace, allowing readers to slowly learn about the two boys, learn about the cultures, and slowly be exposed to the horror that teens on both sides of the conflict live with.  The darker parts of battle and imprisonment are dealt with obliquely, allowing readers to bring their own level of understanding to the atrocities being committed.  Again, this is a testimony to the skill of Perkins’ writing.

Highly recommended, this book takes the horrors of war and package them in a piercingly beautiful story.  Appropriate for ages 12-15.

Reviewed from copy received from Charlesbridge.

Also reviewed by many, many other bloggers.  Check out a list of them on Mitali’s blog.

Sharing the Seasons

Sharing the Seasons selected by Lee Bennett Hopkins, illustrated by David Diaz

I consider Lee Bennett Hopkins one of the greatest anthologists of children’s poetry in our time.  His latest collection offers poetry that celebrates the seasons.  Once again his skill at placement of poems next to one another is apparent.  He manages to form an order to the poems that reads fluidly and never groups them together lumpily by smaller themes.  This collection features poems that are child friendly, but never didactic.  They are poems that sing and thanks to the conducting skills of Hopkins, they are a symphony.

Hopkins contributed poems himself to the anthology, often using them to frame the theme.  There are poems here that are quite short but stunningly deep.  The one I adore most ends the anthology:

December by Sanderson Vanderbilt

A little boy stood on the corner

And shoveled bits of dirty, soggy snow

Into the sewer–

With a jagged piece of tin.

He was helping spring to come.

Diaz’s art is glowing.  Rich and warm, it encircles the poems and illuminates them.  He captures the light and holds it to the page in vibrant color.  Beautiful and poetic.

Highly recommended, this poetry anthology is a jewel.  Perfection for seasonal poems, it sings of the seasons.  Appropriate for ages 4-9.

Reviewed from copy received from McElderry Books.

Also reviewed by A Patchwork of Books.

Lunch Lady and the Summer Camp Shakedown

Lunch Lady and the Summer Camp Shakedown by Jarrett J. Krosoczka

A fourth book in the spectacularly funny Lunch Lady series, this book returns with the same formula of humor and action.  In this book, Lunch Lady is working at a summer camp that the Breakfast Bunch kids just happen to be attending.  This is not going to be the relaxing summer they all expected!  A swamp monster is on the loose at camp, coming out only at night.  Now Lunch Lady and the kids have to once again join forces to find out who is behind the attacks.

The puns here are just as funny as in all of the previous books.  They are guaranteed to have readers groaning and then sharing them aloud with friends.  The art is just as simple and fun too, sticking to the limited color palette that marks this clearly as a Lunch Lady book. 

A winning addition to a very popular series, every library should have this series for young graphic novel fans.  Appropriate for ages 7-10.

The Buffalo Are Back


The Buffalo Are Back by Jean Craighead George, paintings by Wendell Minor

This is the haunting story of the loss of the buffalo herds that once thundered across the United States.  It is a story of the buffalo, the prairies and the Native Americans.  The Indians knew how to care for the grasslands and by caring for the grass, they took care of the buffalo which they depended on for survival.  So when the Indians stood against the American government and its settlers, defending the land, the government ordered the buffalos killed off.  Now the settlers battled the grass, tearing it up to create farmland.  Farmland that was doomed to become the Dust Bowl when the very soil crumbled to dust and locusts attacked their crops.  But the buffalo were not exterminated.  With Teddy Roosevelt came change and a love of the buffalo. Now there is a return of the buffalo and the grasses.

George captures a tumultuous and horrible history in this book for children.  She manages to take an overwhelming loss and condense it into something that is understandable for young children.  Her words are powerful, evocative and beautiful.  She captures the fragility of nature and earth with spirit and honesty.  The paintings by Minor take this book to another level.  His depictions of the glorious buffalo, the endlessness of the prairie, and the horrors of destruction are breathtaking.  His virtuoso art brings the entire history to life.

In the end, this book is about hope.  It is about the fact that we have choices to make, and that we can make a difference.  Beautiful and stunning, we must be part of creating the future this book tells us of.  Appropriate for ages 7-10.

Reviewed from copy received from Dutton.


Blindsided by Priscilla Cummings

Natalie has been losing her sight since she was eight.  She is still able to see in a tunneled form, but then receives the news that she will lose her sight completely in a short period of time.  Natalie is sent to a school for the blind to learn the skills she will need to have when she is blind.  She is taught Braille and how to walk with a cane. But she doesn’t consider herself in the same situation as the other teens at the school.  They are blind and she is not.  She does learn the skills, but inwardly refuses to accept the situation, hoping for a miracle to happen.  Eventually her sight does leave completely and now Natalie has to choose between using the skills she learned and becoming independent or remaining scared and protected at home.

This book is a mix of positive and negative for me.  Natalie was a fine character with intelligence, lots of doubts, and complex reactions to her situation.  She was well drawn and interesting.  The information on the school for the blind and her skills were also interesting, though they could have been woven more into the story itself so that they read more effortlessly. 

Unfortunately, the book suffered from heavy-handed writing that was often didactic in tone.  There was a sense that the author had a lot to say about overcoming obstacles and disabilities.  Her need to inform others intruded on the story itself, which would have been much stronger without the tone.  Additionally, there were often moments when Natalie grew to new understanding which the author underlined and pointed out, lessening their impact instead of strengthening it as intended.

I must also quibble with the foreshadowing of the action-filled ending, which would have been surprising except that it was built into the story too clearly with events leading directly to it.  Again, a more even-handed writing style would have raised it to another level.

Appropriate for ages 13-16.

Reviewed from copy received from Dutton.


Rush by Jonathan Friesen

The author of Jerk, California (winner of the Schneider Family Book Award) returns with another great read.  The only thing that will clear the clouds from Jake’s head is risking his life.  He jumps off of waterfalls, takes risky rides on his dirtbike, climbs the town watertower, and scales rock walls.  His father and older brother don’t understand what he does at all.  His father basically owns their town and his perfect brother is following in his footsteps as a firefighter, something that holds no appeal for Jake.  One thing with appeal is his best friend Salome, but he can never let it become anything more than just friends, because he hurts anything he gets close to and he can’t do that to her.  When Jake’s older brother loses his best friend and quits the firefighters, Jake is offered a place on a crew that rappels into wildfires.  It is a crew with a record of young firefighters dying.  Jake isn’t worried, this suits his thrill-seeking nature just fine, but Salome refuses to stand by and watch him die.   He now has to choose between his friend and the rush.

My short summary above just scratches the surface of this novel.  It is a novel of depression and trying anything to feel clarity and connection.  It is a novel of family, exploring the tension-filled relationship between brothers as well as fathers and sons.  It is a novel of love, of taking that final step and feeling a different kind of clarity and rush.  It is a novel of bravery, of honor, of betrayal.  It is a novel that reads at breakneck pace, yet never loses touch with the importance of character and setting.

Jake is a great character in the novel, exploring the reason why people take large risks.  He is a tormented soul, unable to form connections with those he loves, able only to bond with the thrills.  Yet at the same time, he has friends who love him, despite the ways he pushes them away.  The novel is beautifully written, exploring the danger and power of fire, which is used as a perfect metaphor for Jake and his own destructive nature. 

A novel that will appeal to a broad range of readers, from those who are thrill seekers themselves and want a great action-filled read to those who are interested in a well-drawn character facing incredible odds.  Appropriate for ages 15-18.

Reviewed from copy received from Speak.

Check out Jonathan Friesen’s website, his blog, and an interview about his inspiration for the book.

Summer Birds

Summer Birds: the Butterflies of Maria Merian by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Julie Paschkis

Maria, a young girl living in Germany during the Middle Ages, disproves the ancient belief that butterflies, frogs and other small creatures spontaneously generate from mud.  Maria instead observes their transformations as they change from egg to caterpillar and finally to moth or butterfly.  She must study them in secret because others would accuse her of witchcraft for dealing with these insects that they believe are evil.  She paints what she sees, documenting the changes and her observations of their lives.  Readers will enjoy this marriage of science and art in a picture book format.

Maria can serve as an inspiration for us all.  She took a long-standing theory and through her own powers of observation and judgment disproved it.  Following her own interests of science and art, Maria was an explorer, a scientist and a discoverer.  The author’s note at the end of the book tells readers more of Maria’s story, including what she went on to do as an adult.  Charmingly, the picture book remains simple and straight forward, never getting bogged down in the mud.

Paschkis’ art has a folk-art feel that ties it naturally to the time period of the story.  Her use of strong, simple lines echoes the simple strength of the writing as well.  As a reader, I had expected to see more of Engle’s poetry in evidence here in her first picture book.  It was a pleasure to see that she excels at simple storytelling just as much as she does at imagery and poetry.

A powerful combination of art and science, just like Maria, this book is appropriate for ages 5-9.

Reviewed from copy received from Henry Holt.

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Griff Carver, Hallway Patrol

Griff Carver, Hallway Patrol by Jim Krieg

Griff Carver is a legend in school law enforcement, but he was expelled from his old school for going too far in the name of justice.  Now he’s at Rampart Middle School, a school that is perfect on the surface, but seething with crime underneath.  Griff is not a rookie.  He can sense littering out of the corner of his eye, nabbing the principal of the school on his first day on patrol.  Griff finds himself partnered with Tommy, a Camp Scout, who is unable to see past the thin veneer of respectability at his school.  Instead, Tommy accuses Griff of being the bad guy, resulting him getting him kicked off of Patrol Squad.  That won’t be enough to get Griff to stop seeking out the real bad guy who is running a fake hallpass scheme.

Tongue-in-cheek and riotously funny, this book takes the crime genre and sets it in middle school.  Fans of crime fiction and crime programs will love seeing some of the favorite tropes of the genre played with.  The lingo Griff uses is dead on, adding to the humor of the book.  The pairing of the veteran Griff with the naive Tommy is also directly out of the genre.  Adding to the feel is the use of recorded statements and Patrol Squad reports to form the storyline. 

The setting here is humorously drawn as well.  The middle school is depicted not in lengthy descriptions but through the eyes of hall patrol.  I especially enjoyed No Man’s Land, the area on the school grounds where the erasers are cleaned, forming a permanent fog of dust.  What could be more perfect for the genre than a meeting in the fog?

A great summer read, this book will have middle school readers laughing out loud, engaged with both the humor and the action itself.  Appropriate for ages 10-13.

Reviewed from copy received from Razor Bill.


Doodlebug by Karen Romano Young

Dodo has been expelled from her last school because she tried to sell her Ritalin to other students in her class.  Now her family is moving from LA to San Francisco.  Her parents are hoping for a fresh start for their careers and for Dodo.  Her younger sister Momo is angry about the move, and Dodo is unsure that it will make any difference at all.  On the trip, Dodo discovers that she loves to draw, that doodling makes her calmer and better able to deal with the drive and the move.  Dodo starts a new school, changing her nickname to Doodlebug.  Her doodling is accepted in some classes and forbidden in others.  Momo is desperate to join the school’s choir, so she tries several stunts, like singing into the PA system of the school.  Both girls may have pushed it a bit too far in their new school.  Will Dodo be expelled again?

A fabulous combination of journal, graphic novel and story, this book allows readers to really understand what it is to be a visual learner and to have ADD.  Dodo is a great character, fully developed and complex.  Just as wonderfully drawn are her family members, even the new cat, Sven.  They are all complicated and interesting, portraying a real, multicultural family dealing with change and opportunity. 

Young’s creativity is fully on display here with pages filled with a variety of lettering, lots of drawings and plenty of forward momentum.  Several touches will resonate with young artists who will find the names of the pens used to make the black and white illustrations.  They will get plenty of inspiration to create their own journals, capture their own lives and adventures. 

Highly recommended, this book will be enjoyed by readers who enjoyed the Joey Pigza series, Amelia’s Notebook, and Diary of a Wimpy Kid.  Appropriate for ages 9-13.

Reviewed from copy received from Feiwel and Friends.

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Check out Karen Romano Young’s website.