Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Shadow Children Sequence by Margaret Peterson Haddix

My 4th graders can't get enough of this book. They whine. They plead. They sulk if we don't read it.
Luke is a third child in a resource-scarce society that allows only two children per family, so he spends his days in hiding. Officially, he does not exist. He has met no-one except his mother, father, and two older brothers. When the woods that surround his house are cut down to make room for an upscale housing development, Luke is forced further in to isolation no longer allowed even to eat at the family table for fear of being seen through the window. However, the new houses bring an unexpected gift to Luke when he discovers another "shadow child" living nearby. Only this third child has no intention of remaining hidden, and Luke must decide if he is willing to step out from the shadows. This is the first book in a series of six.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Barkbelly by Cat Weatherill

I passed my new favorite book Barkbelly a few times before I actually checked it out of the library. I was intrigued by the title and drawn by Peter Brown's cover illustration, but I wasn't sure that I wanted to read a book about a wooden boy. Pinocchio was one of my least favorite fairy tales growing up. The third time I saw it I felt as if the book gods were trying to tell me something, so I gave up. Thank heavens! Cat Weatherill is a master of word craft. Her inventive imagry is breathtaking. Literally.
" The land fell away into an immense floodplain, ringed by mountains. A river shimmered through it like a dropped necklace." (79)
Weatherill's background is in performance storytelling and the book is surely meant to be read aloud. Her language flows like a river of rainbows from your tongue.
Barkbelly is a flawed hero with a wooden chest but a heart of gold. The world he moves in is alive, much like our own, with an array of good, evil and inbetween characters but with more interesting names like Candy Pie, Taffeta Tything, and Samovar Rubek.
Snowbone is the sequel.
I never actually completed this book. However, I would still have it in my library if only to be able to whip it out when I needed examples of really good writing.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793 by Jim Murphy

I just started reading this with my 6th grade class, a very discerning audience, and they are hooked. Well, I wasn't exactly taking risks when I chose this because, as you can see from the cover, other discerning audiences think it is good too.
This non-fiction reads like fiction and Murphy does all the things good fiction writers do. The opening chapter transports the reader to Philedelphia and we are surrounded by the sights, smells, and sounds of 18th Century urban America. This chapter ends with the image of Yellow Fever as a silent and deadly stalker roaming the streets of Philadelphia. Ooooh, sixth graders love that stuff!
Murphy deftly mixes social and political history without losing his narrative flair and, therefore, his audience. Murphy's advice for non-fiction writers is, "Whatever you do, write visually!" and realistic descriptions of open sewers and bowel movements certainly stick in the reader's mind. His genius in writing for younger readers is his ability to bring this major historical event down to a personal level where the choices of one person can be seen to affect the course of history itself.
If you wanted to pair and compare An American Plague with a fictional account of the event, the riveting Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson is a great choice. It tells the story of a 14 year old girl whose family runs a coffee house in ill-fated Philadelphia. Anderson's book is well researched and uses many of the same characters and events as Murphy's.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Night of the Howling Dogs by Graham Salisbury

With my usual lack of attention to detail, it wasn't until I finished reading this compelling tale of survival that I realised it was a true story. Salisbury's cousin was a member of a scout troop that found itself engulfed by a Tsunami while they camped on a deserted beach on the Big Island of Hawaii. In real life, not everyone made it back from the camping trip. You'll have to read it yourself to find out if the same is true in the novel.
Salisbury foreshadows this catastrophic event with the tension that exists between the narrator Dylan, a white middle-class boy, and older Louie, part Hawaiin whose parents have almost forgotten he exists. Dylan had witnessed Louie being beaten up and in his humiliation, Louie turned on Dylan. Louie keeps Dylan nervous with his menacing looks and constant teasing but their mutual dislike becomes irrelevant in the events that follow.

The Chronicles of Ancient Darkness by Michelle Paver

What impresses me most about Michelle Paver is how she manages to mix ancient mysticism with fast-paced adventure and deliver a fascinating history lesson at the same time. Set 6,000 years ago, The Chronicles of Ancient Darkness follow Torak, a young spirit walker, his faithful companion Wolf, and Renn, an accomplished huntress. Torak, who can talk to wolves, is an orphan of the Wolf Clan and Renn, a girl with the powers of a mage, a daughter of the Raven Clan . Together they escape danger and death in the form of hungry ice bears, enraged wild boars, menacing social outcasts and their own inexperience. Grudgingly they come to accept their destiny - to defeat the evil Soul Eaters who plot to unleash demons on the many clans in order to rule them all.
The growing bond between Renn, Torak and Wolf lends these breathtaking adventures a human quality that transcends millenia. In many ways we children of the 21st Century are almost unrecognizable as the descendents of our ancestors who lived in awe of nature and survived by taking only what they needed. Of course, this doesn't mean that I want to start rubbing seal blubber on my face and swallowing still-warm guillemot livers. However, there is a tiny part of Renn and Torak in me tucked deep, deep down which makes me look at my processed meat in its cling-film wrapping and wonder.

Books in this series: Wolf Brother, Spirit Walker, Soul Eater, and Outcast (May 20, 2008)
Fans of the series have their own website The Clan.