The Mysterious Disappearance of Aidan S. by David Levithan

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The Mysterious Disappearance of Aidan S. by David Levithan (9781984848598)

When Aidan disappears one day, Lucas and his family spend all their time searching for him. The police and the entire community come out, looking for Aidan. After six days of being gone, Aidan suddenly reappears in the attic of their house. He tells an incredible story of entering a fantasy world through the cupboard in the attic. Lucas, his younger brother, desperately wants to believe him. The two spend the darkness before they fall asleep talking about where Aidan was. But their parents don’t believe him at all and the police, while not pushing for him to tell the truth, clearly see his tale as a coping mechanism. When his story is accidentally released by the police, the entire school begins mocking Aidan. Lucas sticks by his brother’s side, though underneath is still not sure what to believe.

Levithan has published books for teens primarily and this time turns his talent to a book for middle graders. It’s a book that asks a lot of questions and allows them to linger, hanging in the air without resolution for some time. It’s a book that forces readers to ask themselves what they believe in, what they would do, what choices they would make in this situation. As always, Levithan’s prose is engaging and his pacing is skillful, something that is particularly important in a book like this, not allowing it to drag but carrying the book forward.

The central question of believing his brother places Lucas in a precarious position. He finds himself knowing more than anyone else about Aidan’s claimed experience and then also in the public having to not reveal all that he knows. He is a great younger brother, standing with his older sibling despite the mockery they both face. Told from Lucas’ viewpoint, the book relies on his take on what is happening, what he himself witnesses and his love for his brother.

An enticing book of fantasy and mystery. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy provided by Alfred A. Knopf.

The 57 Bus by Dashka Slater

The 57 Bus by Dashka Slater

The 57 Bus by Dashka Slater (9780374303235)

This nonfiction book for teens looks at two sides of a hate crime in Oakland, California. It took place on a bus where an asexual student, Sasha, was riding. They (the pronoun they use) were reading at first and then fell asleep on the public bus. A white teen, they went to a small private school in town and lived in a middle-class neighborhood. They were wearing a gauzy skirt at the time. It was a skirt that caught the eye of Richard and his friends. Richard, a black teen, attended a public high school and was newly back in the community after being in juvenile detention. Without even considering the impact of his actions, Richard set Sasha’s skirt on fire. What was meant to be a prank turned into a hate crime and potential life imprisonment.

This internationally known crime is given voice by the people who lived it in this nonfiction book. Written with such care and compassion for both sides, the book made me weep with both the fact that asexual and gender nonconforming teens and people face this type of attack and also the fact that African-American teens are charged as adults and face huge sentences as a result. Slater dances what seems at times to be an impossible line, showing the humanity on both sides of the story, explaining the facts that impact the lives of the people involved, and offering an opportunity to look deeply into a case rather than reading the headlines.

There is such humanity on these pages. It will remind everyone that there are different sides to incidents like these, that rushing to judgement is not helpful, that forgiveness has power, and that people, especially teenagers can learn from mistakes and grow from them if given a chance. Written like a novel, the book has dashingly short chapters and features the voices of the two teens whose lives changed in a moment.

The skill evident in this book is remarkable. This is the nonfiction book that teen readers today need. Appropriate for ages 15-18.

Reviewed from e-galley received from Edelweiss and Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Review: The Seventh Most Important Thing by Shelley Pearsall

The Seventh Most Important Thing by Shelley Pearsall

The Seventh Most Important Thing by Shelley Pearsall (InfoSoup)

Arthur can’t stand that the junk man is wearing his father’s hat, so he throws a brick at the old man and injures him. Sent to juvenile detention, Arthur has to appear in court where the junk man steps up and offers him a choice. He can either be sentenced to detention or he can do community service working with the junk man. Arthur agrees to work for the man. When he starts, all he gets is a list of items to find in the garbage. Soon Arthur is digging through the garbage himself. At first he does it with no interest at all, not fulfilling the list he has been given at all. Soon though, he is spotting treasures and keeping things like foil from his friend’s lunch. As he works on the items on the list, they grow in significance to him on a personal level and in his life. When he discovers what the man has been using the items for, Arthur is captivated and begins to work alongside him.

Pearsall has created a book that speaks to the power of one person to make a difference in someone’s life. First there is the brick being thrown, then the man saving Arthur from detention and then the story progresses and Arthur matures and he begins to save the man in return. It’s a beautiful cycle, one of caring and concern and humanity. The humility of garbage collecting is also a huge factor in the book, one that works not only to break down barriers but also to lift up the person to a different level along with the items they collect.

Pearsall also uses language impressively. She describes characters clearly and does not pontificate about the lessons to be seen in the book. Instead the story stands on its own merits and the conclusions you draw are your own. It makes it an ideal book to use with a class and will inspire discussions about right and wrong, and responsibility.

A vibrant piece of historical fiction based on a true story, this novel will be welcomed by teachers and youth alike. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC received from Knopf Books for Young Readers.

Review: Tricky Vic by Greg Pizzoli

Tricky Vic by Greg Pizzoli

Tricky Vic: The Impossible True Story of the Man Who Sold the Eiffel Tower by Greg Pizzoli

This is a picture book version of the life of Robert Miller, known to law enforcement as Count Victor Lustig, who was one of the greatest con artists of all time. During the early 1900s, Lustig traveled the world doing one con after another. He sailed on ocean liners and befriended wealthy travelers beating them at cards just before they reached their destination. He even conned the legendary Al Capone, pretending to try to double his money while all the time just giving Capone his same money back to appear honest. It worked! His largest con of all time was trying to sell the Eiffel Tower for scrap metal. Amazingly, he did that twice! This incredible story makes for riveting reading and is filled with historical information so young readers will understand concepts like Prohibition.

Pizzoli writes the story of Lustig with great flourish, reveling in the amazing cons that this one man managed to pull off. Pizzoli is known for his simple and clever picture books for younger readers, and in this nonfiction picture book he shows his skills in writing for elementary-aged children. This biography is funny and fascinating, a combination that will have children enthusiastically turning the pages. His writing is filled with the details that make the cons more interesting and using sidebars, he makes sure that children understand the historical context of these cons and how Lustig got away with so much for so long.

Pizzoli’s illustrations add to the appeal. Lustig is shown with only a fingerprint for a head, keeping him a complete enigma throughout the book. At the same time, this bowler-hatted man stands out from the others. The illustrations are an intriguing mix of photographs and drawings, hearkening back to black-and-white photographs even while offering a modern look too.

An impressively compelling subject and cool illustrations combine into a book that is impossible to put down. Appropriate for ages 7-11.

Reviewed from copy received from Viking Books for Young Readers.

Review: The Highway Rat by Julia Donaldson

highway rat

The Highway Rat by Julia Donaldson, illustrated by Axel Scheffler

The creators of The Gruffalo return for an uproarious version of a beloved poem.  Beware, for the Highway Rat is coming and he’s out to steal everyone’s snacks.  He rides along with food dropping out of his saddlebags, accosting poor travelers at sword point, demanding their goodies.  He steals clover from a rabbit who has nothing else, a leaf from some ants, even hay from his own horse.  Eventually though, the Highway Rat meets his match in a juicy-looking duck who directs him into a cave where the echo seems to promise food.  Then the Highway Rat rides no more.

I love a good riff on a traditional poem, and this one is very clever.  Those familiar with The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes will particularly enjoy the play Donaldson makes with its form.  She incorporates familiar phrasing like “And the Highway Rat went riding – riding –riding – riding along the highway.”  Somehow her other words which are quite different from the poem have a similar rhythm and evoke the poem effortlessly.

Scheffler’s illustrations have a wonderful bold quality to them.  The Highway Rat is truly a bad guy and his naughtiness is clearly shown in his actions and his aspect.  His googly-eyed horse is a pleasure, almost always making eye-contact with the reader and sharing the joke of this evil rat riding on his back.  The rich colors of the landscape add a depth to the illustrations that is very welcome.

The tale of an evil highwayman (or rat) makes for a great read.  Add in strong illustrations and the play on a well-known poem, and you have picture book magic.  Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from copy received from Arthur A. Levine Books.

White Cat – Dark and Delightful

White Cat by Holly Black

Curse working is illegal because it can so easily be misused and disguised.  Curse workers are able to change your memories, give you good or bad luck, change your emotions, and even change you into something else.  Cassel comes from a family of curse workers who continue to use their gifts illegally.  His mother is currently in prison because she worked someone’s emotions.  His brothers work for one of the crime bosses.  Cassel has deliberately created a life separate from his family.  But he can’t run from the fact that he killed his best friend a few years ago.  Cassel can’t do curse work but that doesn’t stop him from pulling a con.  At his private boarding school, he is a bookie for all sorts of bets.  But things start to fall apart when Cassel wakes up on the roof and can only remember following a white cat in his dreams.  The school sends him home and requires him to see a doctor before he returns.  As Cassel tries to find a way to game the system and return to school, more odd things start to happen, leading Cassel to figure out exactly what his mobster family has been up to. 

Holly Black has created a great mashup of mobsters and fantasy.  In this compelling novel, she has given us a clever and twisted world that is well-built and completely brought to life.  A large piece of her success is her protagonist.  Cassel is charming, intelligent and easily cons readers into liking him.  Thanks to being an outsider in the crime world, he is a great way to introduce readers to this skewed and amazing world that Black has created.  Equally successful is Black’s pacing and story.  The action sequences are inventive and taut, they are contrasted effectively with the slower, subtler moments of the novel.  It is beautifully constructed. 

A crime spree of a novel, this book will have readers clamoring for the second one in the Curse Workers series as soon as they finish the first.  Don’t handle this one with kid gloves!  Appropriate for ages 14-17.

Reviewed from copy received from Simon & Schuster.

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