Summerlost by Ally Condie (InfoSoup)
Cedar’s family is much smaller than it once was. Her father and brother were killed in a car accident and now Cedar, her mother and her other brother are returning to the small town of Iron Creek for the summer where they have purchased a new house. Cedar soon notices a boy riding his bike past their house dressed in costume. Cedar follows him to Summerlost, a local and renowned theater festival. There, Cedar meets the boy on the bike, Leo and finds herself a summer job too. Leo and Cedar have soon created a tour together about a famous local actress who performed at Summerlost and died in Iron Creek. Cedar’s summer is filled with small mysteries like who is putting items on her windowsill that her dead brother would have loved that help distract her from the loss she has so recently experienced, until she can’t ignore it any longer.
Condie, author of the Matched series, has created a beautiful middle grade novel here that rings with honesty. She manages to keep both the reader and Cedar aware of the loss that was experienced but also moving forward and towards other things. The book is haunted with those deaths, appearing out of nowhere in the middle of beautiful summer days, but also hiding at times and almost disappearing with the busyness of work. It’s an intelligent balance written very cleverly.
Condie’s writing is superb throughout the novel. In Summerlost, she creates an entire world of theater that is intoxicating and memorable. Early in the novel, Condie through Cedar’s voice explains what it is like to have a family shrunk by tragedy:
Sometimes I thought of the three of us as pencils with the erasers scrubbed down to the end, and the next swipe across the paper would tear through the page and make a scree sound across the desk.
This approachable and yet deep writing runs throughout the novel, exposing grief in unexpected and tangible ways.
A strong and outstanding novel for middle grades, this book takes a courageous look at grief and the resilience it takes to continue to live. Appropriate for ages 10-13.
Reviewed from ARC received from Dutton Books for Young Readers.
Frankencrayon by Michael Hall (InfoSoup)
This picture book has been cancelled. The crayons in the story are saddened that the picture book won’t be happening. After all, they have costumes and were going to tell an amazing story. But now that someone is actually reading the cancelled story, they may as well tell the reader exactly why the picture book has ended. It is all because of the horrible scribble that suddenly interrupted the story. They tried to clean the page, but the scribble just got larger and larger. It was out of control and everyone was so disturbed by it that they forgot to tell Frankencrayon that something was wrong. So when the crayons playing him entered on Page 22, they ran right into the scribble. It would take some quick thinking and fast action to save the story.
Hall has such a playful approach to picture books that one never quite knows what sort of story they are heading into. This book is great fun from the set up of the “cancellation” to the crayons in costumes. It is clever and humorous with exactly the sort of humor that preschoolers adore. Children will not be scared by anything here thanks to the use of crayons and the horror being a scribble on the page. This one reads aloud beautifully, filled with voices of the pencil, the crayons, and even one evil scribbler.
The cut paper collage pops on each page, the crayons bright with their colors and delightful in their different sizes after clearly having been merrily colored with for some time. The pointy pencil too somehow has its own personality. The solution that Frankencrayon comes up with is exactly what children would think of and adds to the visual appeal of the book.
This funny picture book is perfect to share aloud with a group of preschoolers who may love to do their own transformations of scribbles into something more friendly. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from copy received from Greenwillow Books.
The Marvels by Brian Selznick (InfoSoup)
Released September 15, 2015.
The author of The Invention of Hugo Cabret returns with his third book. In this novel that mixes his vivid artwork with longer passages of text, the focus is on one amazing family, The Marvels. It begins in the 18th century with a shipwreck where a boy survives the sinking of The Kraken and finds his way to London. Just as the ship was sinking, he had been participating in a play on board along with his brother who was killed in the wreck. So when he reached London, he found the Royal Theatre and people willing to take him in. Time passed and the boy turned into a man who one day finds a baby left on the theater doorstep. So begins a theatrical family until one generation does not want to be on stage anymore. Time turns again, now it is 1990 and the story is that of Joseph who has run away from boarding school to the home of his uncle whom he has never met. Looking through the windows of the home, it is as if a huge family has just left the room. But his uncle lives there alone. Odd noises filter through the house too, a bird sings where there is no bird and footsteps can be heard. As Joseph is allowed to stay, he discovers that he is living in a mystery and one that he must solve in order to understand his uncle.
This is another stunning novel from Selznick. Again it marries his art with his prose, both of which are beautiful and evocative. His art depicts the theater life and shows how like ship rigging the ropes all are. It shows art and family and irreconcilable differences. Then comes the prose where Selznick paints a picture of the uncle’s home with the same detail and care that he uses in his images. They come to life in a different but complementary way. It is stirring and beautiful to experience vivid depiction of two settings, one in text and the other in art. This results in a book that is visually arresting but also has prose that is worthy of celebrating and sinking into as well.
Joseph and his uncle are both very interesting characters. Both are rather isolated and lonely, finding their own space in the world. Both struggle to fit in, but also find ways that allow them to not have to change their own personality much at all. It is a book that looks at love and the various places you can find it in life as well as its power to transform. As the story unfolds, there are wonders and almost magic at work. This is an exploration of theater and performance too, a look at what is truth and what is real and an acknowledgement that theater can be both.
I was rapt when reading this novel. It is a treat to have a new Selznick to explore and this one lives up to his stellar reputation. Appropriate for ages 8-12.
Reviewed from ARC received from Scholastic.
The Forget-Me-Not Summer by Leila Howland (InfoSoup)
Marigold, Zinnie and Lily are sisters. They live busy lives in California where Marigold is hoping to have a real kiss for the first time, not one done on set. Zinnie is trying to get her curly wild hair under control and hopes to be able to spend time with Marigold and her friends. Lily is five and wants nothing more than to stay home with her nanny and eat great food. But then their parents get jobs out of town and the sisters are sent to spend the summer with an aunt they have never met across the country in Cape Cod. The three girls suddenly have to share a room with one another, live without a TV, not have cell phone service, and even the internet access is outdated and slow. Marigold is furious at losing a chance to be in a major film and having to spend time with her little sisters. Zinnie finds herself talking to trees for advice and watching for surprises created by special brownies. Lily longs for the food she had at home but also enjoys a good clambake too. Just as things seem to be starting to turn around, parts of California life appear and set everything askew again. These three sisters will have to figure out how to be themselves even when kisses, peer pressure and fame appear.
This book will inevitably be compared to the Penderwicks and rightly so. The sisters have that same spunk about them and the setting offers that timelessness that works so well. Though in this book, the girls chafe against the loss of TV and Internet, struggling to get along with one another. These sisters have fights, that are so well done that you understand both sides of the problem and can take the side of either one. The two older girls in particular both are human and far from perfect. Lily may look angelic but she too can throw tantrums and have horrible days, especially if baths are not negotiated properly.
It is that human quality that makes this book work so very well. The sisters are realistically portrayed and their relationships develop and change right in front of the reader in a way that makes sense. The unknown aunt turns out to be a very special person, kind and caring and someone who is a leader in the Cape Cod community. It’s a treat to see such a great female adult portrayed in a children’s book. One who is strong, enjoys children and gives them plenty of space to learn and grow without being overly odd or incompetent in any way.
A great summer read for fans of The Penderwicks, I’m hoping for another book featuring these girls. Appropriate for ages 8-12.
Reviewed from copy received from HarperCollins.
Gracefully Grayson by Ami Polonsky
Grayson lives with his aunt, uncle and cousins after his parents died when he was much younger. Middle school is hard. Grayson doesn’t have friends, eating his lunch in the library rather than the cafeteria. He rarely does anything more than go to school and return home again. After school, Grayson has time on his own before the others get home and he spends his time in front of the mirror dreaming of wearing a dress and being a princess. It’s a fantasy he quickly puts away when the others come home, returning once again to being a boy in a long t-shirt and jeans. Then one day, Grayson decides to go out for the school play. And when he auditions, he tries out for the role of Persephone. What will happen if he gets cast as the female lead and is no longer invisible?
Polonsky has created a critical book for middle-graders about the experience of being transgender in middle school. She hits just the right tone of lightness and seriousness, allowing the story of Grayson to unfold naturally and beautifully on the page. The reader learns along with Grayson what he is really feeling inside, how he wishes to express it, and also how incredibly brave he is. He’s an incredible character, one that is relatable and inspiring.
Polonsky also does not duck away from negative reactions to Grayson. In Grayson’s aunt, readers will see an adult who is struggling to understand someone who is transgender. She seeks to protect Grayson from bullies by hiding what he truly is and goes after the teacher who is helping Grayson express who he is on the inside. There are also bullies at Grayson’s school who play a part in his isolation. Yet there are also heroes among the students as well as Grayson’s uncle who is supportive. It’s a strong mix of reactions, showing that while there is hate there is also love and support.
An important book for middle-grade children about being transgender and being true to yourself. Appropriate for ages 10-13.
Reviewed from library copy.
The Stratford Zoo Midnight Revue Presents: Macbeth by Ian Lendler, illustrated by Zack Giallongo
When the gates shut at night at The Stratford Zoo, the animals come out to play. They steal the keys from one of the zoo keepers as they leave and all of the cages are unlocked. Vendors walk the aisles selling treats like peanuts and earthworms to the growing crowd. Then on stage, the theater begins with the lion as Macbeth. After meeting with the witches, the question is whether Macbeth will eat the king. Lady Macbeth proposes different preparations to make the king taste better, and Macbeth finally succumbs and eats the king. But then, as with any Shakespearean tragedy, others must be eaten too. This is a wild and wonderful combination of Shakespeare, hungers both human and animal, and plenty of humor.
Lendler takes great liberties with Shakespeare’s Macbeth. He combines all of the moments that people remember in the play, from Lady Macbeth trying to wash out the spots of blood to the visits to the three witches and the way their predictions play out. He also adds in lots of slapstick comedy, plenty of asides from the audience and actors, and also shortens the play substantially.
Giallongo’s art is colorful and dramatic. He plays up the drama of the ketchup stains, the growing stomach of the lion, and the ambitions of Lady Macbeth. Comic moments are captured with plenty of humor visually. This zoo is filled with fur, claws, fun and drama.
A perfect combination of Shakespeare and wild animal humor, this will please those who know Macbeth and people knew to the play alike. Appropriate for ages 8-12.
Reviewed from copy received from First Second.
Father’s Chinese Opera by Rich Lo
A first person account of a little boy who spent a summer backstage at his father’s Chinese opera in Hong Kong. He watched the actors, the orchestra, and all of the vibrant action of the acrobats. The boy approached the top acrobatic actor and asked if he would train him. He promised to work hard to learn all of the complicated movements. After practicing for awhile, the boy announced that he was ready for the stage now, but his trainer laughed at him. The boy was heartbroken until his father explained that it had taken him many steps of training to earn the right to lead the opera. So the boy began again, this time starting in the lowly role of flag boy onstage but also adding his own movements too.
Lo reveals in his Author’s Note that he grew up with his father taking him to the theater for opera rehearsals and performances. This book captures the dreams of a young boy and his wish to not only be like his father but also to be on stage and perform. The focus on hard work and determination is clear in this picture book and is presented in an approachable way for young readers.
The illustrations by Lo are bright and filled with movement. He captures the acrobats in mid-flip on the page. The costumes shine on the page, the rainbow of colors rich against the white background. He uses flowing lines to crate motion and watercolors that are bright and flow together.
An impressive look behind the scenes at a Chinese opera and a lesson in hard work as well, this picture book will be enjoyed by teachers and children alike. Appropriate for ages 5-8.
Reviewed from library copy.
Five, Six, Seven, Nate! by Tim Federle
This sequel to the award-winning Better Nate Than Ever is one of the strongest second books in a series I have read. After getting cast as ET in the upcoming ET: The Musical, Nate is now living in New York City with his aunt who is also an actress. But Broadway isn’t everything that Nate has dreamed it would be. There seems to be a feud between the video-game creator who is their director and the choreographer. Nate is an understudy and a member of the chorus but he can’t tap dance and is put into extra classes to improve. But there are also high points. Nate has a secret admirer who leaves notes and gifts, and he certain he knows who it is. Nate is also secretly helping another of the ET actors with her lines and they become close friends over manicures. Like any great Broadway story there are twists and turns and some romance too. It’s one hell of a second act.
Federle writes in a way that is so easy to read and creates books that are impossible to put down until the final curtain falls. This ease of reading though is because he is really writing directly for children in a way that is open, honest and speaks to all children whether they are actors or not. Add in Nate’s questioning his sexual identity and you have a book with plenty of depth.
What Federle does best is to create characters who surprise and delight. Nate himself captures this. Nate could come off as a stereotypical actor, but instead because the book is in first person, Nate reveals all of his inner dialogue. Much of which is screamingly funny. But Nate is not the only deep character here. Even tertiary characters are interesting and offer glimpses of how unique they are. Among the secondary characters, there are many who would make great books all on their own. Federle is a master of creating characters and making us care for them.
Bravo! This is a smash production filled with humor and delight. Appropriate for ages 10-13.
Reviewed from copy received from Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.
Better Nate Than Ever by Tim Federle
Nate lives in Jankburg, Pennsylvania probably as far from Broadway that you can get. But Broadway is where he dreams of being. So when an opportunity to go to an open audition for E.T.: the Musical comes around, he and his best friend figure out how to get him to New York City without anyone knowing. It involves taking an overnight bus from Pennsylvania, taking his mother’s ATM card, and fooling his older brother. Then when he reaches New York City, he has to figure out how to get to the auditions all on his own. There’s a lot that can go wrong in a plan like that, but Broadway and being a star is worth the risk!
Federle has created a tremendously cheery book that is filled with humor and a wonderful light-heartedness. Nate is a character that will speak to many kids who are interested in theater. He describes himself as “undecided” about his sexuality which makes this a very friendly book for middle schoolers who are either questioning their own sexuality or gay. Nate has a wonderful inner voice that he doesn’t allow to speak aloud. His funniest moments are things that he says to himself about circumstances and other people.
While the book remains consistently positive, Federle does also deal with deeper issues like bullying, being the kid at school who doesn’t fit in, alcoholism, and broken families. All of these issues are dealt with seriously and yet at the same time aren’t allowed to make the book dark in any way.
There is humor and hope everywhere in this book. It is a delight of a middle school read.
Reviewed from library copy.