Focused by Alyson Gerber (9781338185973)
Clea loves to play chess; it’s her favorite thing to do. She likes it a lot better than her classes at school where she struggles to pay attention and follow directions. She’s also having a lot of emotional outbursts now that she’s in middle school. Clea knows that it’s because she’s just stupid and that she doesn’t try hard enough. She thinks that no one around her wants to tell her the truth. Then Clea gets tested for ADHD, and she discovers the reason for her issues at school. Still, it isn’t as simple as just taking medication and having a written schedule. In fact, before she realizes it, Clea has managed to drive her best friend away with her behavior. Clea must start figuring out how to manage her ADHD, her personal life and keep her schoolwork in hand, all while trying to be chosen for chess tournaments on the weekends.
Gerber has once again created a female protagonist who struggles with something beyond their control. I deeply appreciated Gerber’s focus on Clea finding a voice to ask for what she needed and her ability to fall down and get back up again. The book also shows ADHD not as something to blame but as a true issue that a person must manage and deal with on a daily basis. Gerber writes with a sensitivity about ADHD that comes from experiencing the issues herself.
As with her first book, readers will discover a lot to relate to with Clea. Simply understanding invisible disabilities more clearly is helpful for all readers. Those who face similar challenges will find a main character worth cheering for on these pages. Clea works incredibly hard even when she fails, thinks of others often, is a great sister and friend, and still can’t fix this issue on her own. It’s a testament to the power of getting help on a variety of levels.
A personal look at ADHD, this novel is a compelling and thought-provoking read. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Scholastic.
Curiosity by Gary Blackwood
The author of The Shakespeare Stealer returns with another historical novel for children. In 1835 Philadelphia, twelve-year-old Rufus has lived a sheltered life, kept inside by the curve of his spine and his small stature. Then his father is thrown into debtor’s prison and his life changes dramatically. Taken into a home for orphans, Rufus is rescued by his skill at chess and taken to live with Maelzel, a sinister man who owns a collection of automatons as well as The Turk, a chess-playing machine. Rufus is forced to hide inside the cabinet below The Turk and play chess against ticket-paying customers. He is promised a small salary with which he hopes to help his father get out of prison. But Rufus’ life is not just playing chess. He must remain hidden at all times to avoid the secret of The Turk being discovered. He can’t ever go out, making this a twisted version of his earlier sheltered life. Now he struggles to get enough to eat, to not be beaten and to find a way to not meet the dark same end as a previous Turk controller.
Blackstone’s historical fiction is rich and detailed. He offers just the right amount of information so that young readers will understand the difference in society and the way of life, but not so much to slow down the story. And what a story this is! The Turk hoax is revealed in all of its twisted, waxy glory through the eyes of a disabled young boy whose entire world has been turned upside down. Yet Rufus is always looking on the bright side, scheming himself to try to survive as best he can and yet also having a child-like wonder at things too.
Blackstone brings early 19th century America to life on the page. He populates his story with real people like Edgar Allan Poe and P. T. Barnum, adding to the already strong sense of reality in his tale. At the end of the book, the author does speak about the liberties he took with these historical figures, including making the sinister Maelzel much more evil than he seemed to be in real life.
Strong writing, a compelling story and a shining hero all make this work of historical fiction a dark delight. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy received from Dial.
Grandmaster by David Klass
Daniel is a freshman in the chess club of an elite private school. He knows he’s one of the poorest kids attending the school, one of the least popular, and also one of the worst chess players. So he’s surprised with two popular and wealthy seniors approach him to invite Daniel and his father to a father son chess tournament in New York City. He’s even more shocked to find out that his own accountant father who doesn’t seem to be good at anything in particular, used to to be a chess grandmaster thirty years ago. Daniel convinces his father to participate and quickly realizes that his father has a profound gift for chess. But as the tournament continues, the stress gets more difficult to deal with and Daniel realizes that his father quitting chess may have been a matter of life and death.
Klass, who was a competitive chess champion himself, writes a book about chess that never lags with too much chess information and is filled with real drama. Klass wisely mixes drama on the board with drama in real life, showing the complexity of competition on a variety of scales. I also appreciate that Klass slowly broke down the shell of the wealthy fathers and sons, showing them for whom they truly were. Happily, he did not end up with stereotypes in any way, rather he showed them all as individuals with various flaws.
Daniel is a great character. He doesn’t realize his own potential and is actually beyond humble. He has a great sense of humor as well, something that works well as he deals with his father. And what a paternal character that is! His father is an amazing mix of wounded chess veteran, incredible brain, and distant man. But that changes, grows, reverts and organically continues throughout the book.
A riveting book about chess, competition and father son relationships, get this book into the hands of chess playing middle schoolers, but even more it may inspire some kids to give the game a try. Appropriate for ages 12-14.
Reviewed from copy received from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.