Review of The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, by E. Lockhart

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks

by E. Lockhart

Hyperion, New York, 2008. 345 pages.
2009 Printz Honor Book
Starred Review

I took an online course about the Printz Award, and the course finally got me to read this wonderful book.

Frankie’s father is sending her to the exclusive prep school where he attended. Her Dad still meets with his buddies and talks about their secret society, the Loyal Order of the Basset Hounds. Unfortunately, it was only for men, so he can’t reveal to Frankie where they hid their record of their escapades, The Disreputable History.

When Frankie’s new boyfriend invites her to a party after curfew and the invitation has a seal with a picture of a basset hound, it’s pretty easy for her to figure out what he’s up to. She doesn’t like it when he won’t tell her anything about his involvement. He thinks of her as a pretty little thing, and that what he does with his friends shouldn’t concern her.

Here’s the letter that opens The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks:

“To: Headmaster Richmond and the Board of Directors, Alabaster Preparatory Academy

“I, Frankie Landau-Banks, hereby confess that I was the sole mastermind behind the mal-doings of the Loyal Order of the Basset Hounds. I take full responsibility for the disruptions caused by the Order — including the Library Lady, the Doggies in the Window, the Night of a Thousand Dogs, the Canned Beet Rebellion, and the abduction of the Guppy.

“That is, I wrote the directives telling everyone what to do.

“I, and I alone.

“No matter what Porter Welsch told you in his statement.

“Of course, the dogs of the Order are human beings with free will,. They contributed their labor under no explicit compunction. I did not threaten them or coerce them in any way, and if they chose to follow my instructions, it was not because they feared retribution.

“You have requested that I provide you with their names. I respectfully decline to do so. It’s not for me to pugn or impugn their characters.

“I would like to point out that many of the Order’s escapades were intended as social criticism. And that many of the Order’s members were probably diverted from more self-destructive behaviors by the activities prescribed them by me. So maybe my actions contributed to a larger good, despite the inconveniences you, no doubt, suffered.

“I do understand the administration’s disgruntlement over the incidents. I see that my behavior disrupted the smooth running of your patriarchal establishment. And yet I would like to suggest that you view each of the Loyal Order’s projects with the gruntlement that should attend the creative civil disobedience of students who are politically aware and artistically expressive.

“I am not asking that you indulge my behavior; merely that you do not dulge it without considering its context.

“Yours sincerely,

“Frances Rose Landau-Banks”

How does Frankie manage to out-prank the pranksters? What are these intriguingly named escapades? In what sense were they social activism? And what happens when she pulls them off?

All is revealed in this delightful book. It’s amazing how gripping the plot is, even when you’re told what happens right at the outset. You can’t help but love Frankie and will keep reading to see what clever stunt she accomplishes next, and if her boyfriend and his buddies will learn to take her seriously. Along the way, she has lots to say about our patriarchal society.

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Source: This review is based on a library book from the Fairfax County Public Library.

Review of Charles and Emma, by Deborah Heiligman

Charles and Emma

The Darwins’ Leap of Faith

Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2009. 268 pages.
Starred Review
2010 Winner YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Award
2009 National Book Award Finalist
2010 Printz Honor Book

Okay, when this book first came out, I wasn’t too interested. I grew up in a conservative Christian family, and didn’t exactly see Charles Darwin as a hero. Then the book kept winning awards, and got strong comments from the judges in School Library Journal’s Battle of the Books. I thought I really should read it. Then I met Deborah Heiligman at the 2010 ALA Annual Conference. When I found out why she wrote it, I knew I had to read it. I purchased a book and got her signature. However, it still took me until this year, when I was taking a class on the Printz Award, to finally get it read.

Deborah explains in the Acknowledgments at the back of the book how her husband got her interested in the story that would become this book:

“Jon’s been writing about science and evolution since we met. I had just graduated from college with a major in religious studies. We started talking immediately — about science and religion and writing and pretty much everything else — and we haven’t stopped since.

“One day, about seven years ago, Jon said to me, ‘You know, Charles Darwin’s wife was religious.’ I looked at him. He continued, ‘And they loved each other very much. She was afraid he would go to hell and they wouldn’t be together for eternity.'”

Evolution is supposed to be opposed to Christianity, right? So how is it possible that Charles Darwin’s wife was deeply religious — and yet the two were very much in love.

Deborah Heiligman tells the love story of Charles and Emma Darwin beautifully. It’s clearly a work of nonfiction — she relies heavily on letters and journals and notebooks written by the two of them — but it reads like a novel. Of course, in a story book, the marriage probably wouldn’t have worked. I found it especially interesting that Charles’ father advised him not to tell his new wife about his doubts about religion. But Charles couldn’t hide them from her. And she loved him anyway and even edited his books, including The Origin of Species.

This book tells the story of how Charles Darwin’s scientific theories developed, but it especially shows us the man who loved his wife and children very much. And whatever your views, you can’t help but fall for the man presented here, and the wife who provided exactly what he needed to be such a distinguished scientist.

This book is wonderfully presented. I like the quotations at the head of each chapter and the way Deborah Heiligman has arranged the facts in such an interesting manner. This book presents a compelling story that is all the more amazing because it’s true.

“You will be forming theories about me & if I am cross or out of temper you will only consider ‘What does that prove.’ Which will be a very grand & philosophical way of considering it. — Emma to Charles, January 23, 1839”

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Review of Heart and Soul, by Kadir Nelson

Heart and Soul

The Story of America and African Americans

by Kadir Nelson

Balzer & Bray, 2011. 108 pages.
2012 Coretta Scott King Author Award Winner
2012 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor Book
2012 Battle of the Kids’ Books Contender
Starred Review

Kadir Nelson’s paintings, as usual, are stunningly beautiful in this book. His use of light makes the people seem warm and alive.

In this book, he takes the voice of an old woman whose family has been in America from the start. She talks about the slaves who fought in the Revolutionary War. Then she talks about her grandfather, Pap, who was born in Africa, captured in 1850 when he was only six years old, and brought to America. She traces all the changes Pap saw — The Civil War, Reconstruction, moving West, the Great Migration, and through the Depression and the Second World War. She talks about the Civil Rights Movement as she saw it herself, and finishes up with an Epilogue that includes these paragraphs:

“Forty-five years after Dr. King spoke on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, I marched my old legs to the polls along with millions of other Americans to vote in an historic election. It was the first time that an African American — Barack Obama — had won the Democratic nomination and appeared on the national ballot for president of the United States. As I cast my vote, I thought about my grandfather Pap, who didn’t live to see this moment, and my three children and two brothers, who did; I thought about my mother and father, and my aunts and uncles; I thought about Abe Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Tubman; I thought about presidents Kennedy and Johnson, Dr. King, Thurgood Marshall, the Freedom Riders, the marchers, and all the people who lived and died so that I might walk into this booth and cast my vote. I thought about them all and smiled; and as I walked away, I closed my eyes and said, ‘Thank you.’

“Our centuries-long struggle for freedom and equal rights had helped make the American promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness a reality for all Americans. We have come a mighty long way, honey, and we still have a good ways to go, but that promise and the right to fight for it is worth every ounce of its weight in gold. It is our nation’s heart and soul.”

The words alone of this book make a grand, sweeping story of African-American contributions to American life, but combined with the paintings, this book has majesty.

Kadir Nelson’s art continues to be breathtaking. He shows you the dignity and beauty of his subjects.

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Review of Dead End in Norvelt, by Jack Gantos

Dead End in Norvelt

by Jack Gantos

Farrar Straus Giroux, New York, 2011. 341 pages.
Starred Review
2012 Newbery Medal

It’s refreshing to read a book set in the Sixties that is not about the Cuban Missile Crisis or Vietnam! This book is about a kid’s strange and interesting summer. It’s surprising how much fun our hero Jack Gantos has, considering that he’s grounded the whole summer. Or at least, we readers have fun reading about it.

The most interesting things happen because Jack is asked to help his neighbor, the ancient Miss Volker. Miss Volker has terrible arthritis, so she needs Jack’s help to type up obituaries for the original residents of Norvelt, who seem to all be dying quickly this summer. Miss Volker tacks on a surprisingly interesting history to each obituary, and she knows relevant details about each resident.

On top of that, we’ve got Jack driving Miss Volker’s car around town. His Dad building an airplane and a runway. His Mom monitoring his behavior. His best friend, the daughter of the funeral parlor owner, teasing him about his fear of dead bodies. And then there’s Jack’s nose:

“How could I forget? I was a nosebleeder. The moment something startled me or whenever I got overexcited or spooked about any little thing blood would spray out of my nose holes like dragon flames.”

There’s a lot of death in Dead End in Norvelt, including a Hell’s Angel who gets hit by a truck in town. But Jack Gantos the author manages to keep things funny. He gives us a great yarn about a kid just trying to stay out of trouble, and managing to learn lots along the way.

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Review of Between Shades of Gray, by Ruta Sepetys

Between Shades of Gray

by Ruta Sepetys

Philomel Books, 2011. 344 pages.
Starred Review
2012 Morris Award Finalist

Here’s a work of fiction that constantly made me forget it wasn’t nonfiction.

The book opens dramatically:

“They took me in my nightgown.

“Thinking back, the signs were there — family photos burned in the fireplace, Mother sewing her best silver and jewelry into the lining of her coat late at night, and Papa not returning from work. My younger brother, Jonas, was asking questions. I asked questions, too, but perhaps I refused to acknowledge the signs. Only later did I realize that Mother and Father intended we escape. We did not escape.

“We were taken.”

It’s 1941 in Lithuania. Stalin has annexed their country, and now he rounds up Lithuanian teachers, librarians, and university professors like Lina’s Papa, and their families. They are shipped in cattle cars to labor camps in Siberia.

The author, Ruta Sepetys, was from the family of a Lithuanian refugee who did escape and made it to America. But she researched this book well (even arranging to be locked away in a former Soviet prison!), and her words ring with terrible truth.

This is by no means a pleasant story, and though I was hoping it would end with Lina’s freedom, I’m afraid it doesn’t. An epilogue tells us that surviving deportees spent ten to fifteen years in Siberia. She does, however, manage to work in a message of hope, of the resilience of the human spirit, and of good even in apparent enemies.

This is a powerful and moving story about an episode of history I knew nothing about. The book is not only beautifully crafted, but does the good work of telling the world a story we should never forget.

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Review of Bootleg, by Karen Blumenthal


Murder, Moonshine, and the Lawless Years of Prohibition

by Karen Blumenthal

Roaring Brook Press, New York, 2011. 154 pages.
Starred Review
2012 YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Finalist

Before I read this book, I thought I knew about Prohibition. This book opened my eyes to how much I didn’t know. While keeping the story moving, the author shows us all the things that led up to Prohibition, how it worked out and didn’t work out, and what led to its repeal. She also talks about after effects.

I had no idea how, when our country was founded, rum was even used to pay wages. Even the Puritans were fond of it! (Who would have thought?) The Continental Army got a daily ration of hard liquor.

“In the years between 1800 and 1830, Americans drank more hard liquor than at any other time in their history, each imbibing on average roughly nine gallons a year, or about four gallons of pure alcohol, about twice the level of the previous generation. Beer and wine still had a place at the table, but less so than before.

“With more hard drink available, the number of taverns and tippling houses multiplied, as did seedier dramshops and gin houses. Not surprising given the amounts ingested, drunkenness also increased and with it, hardships for families affected by a father’s drinking.”

So in the 1830s, the temperance movement began to grow. She writes about Carrie Nation, who attacked saloons with an ax. There is a picture of a boy carrying a beer pail home and another of several young children sitting on barrels, drinking and smoking. I understand better now why the prohibitionists got so worked up.

Karen Blumenthal also explains the political situation that made those against Prohibition think the amendment would never get ratified — so they didn’t put nearly the energy into the campaign that the Prohibitionists did.

But then, after Prohibition passed, she outlines all the ways people got around the law, even as high up as the White House. She talks about law enforcement efforts and non-efforts, and tells the story of Al Capone.

Particularly interesting is her final chapter, “Success or Failure?” She shows us that this is a complex question.

“The men who helped launch the prohibition era and the one who filled it with machine-gun fire left a complex legacy. On the surface, an amendment that was passed and then repealed must have been a colossal failure, an embarrassing splotch in America’s history.

“But prohibition, short-lived though it was, was actually successful in some significant ways. The number of arrests for drunkenness and alcohol-related diseases, like cirrhosis of the liver, fell dramatically. The total consumption of alcohol slid to the lowest level in the nation’s history, especially during World War I and the first few years under the Eighteenth Amendment. Although drinking crept back up in the later 1920s and early 1930s, the amount of alcohol consumed per person each year actually remained fairly low for decades, and didn’t return to pre-prohibition levels until the 1970s, more than fifty years after prohibition took effect.

“In the course of nearly fourteen years of actual prohibition, aided by technology and other developments, Americans became more educated, more urban, and enjoyed far more entertainment. Radios and radio programs became widely available, and almost half the nation became avid listeners. Movie theater attendance doubled after films began to talk in 1926. With one car for every five people, more families headed for national forests and parks. The number of golf courses increased sevenfold. Saloons, the dirty and dangerous blight on the urban landscape, all but disappeared. Even young people had better things to do than hang out in a bar. . . .

“Where prohibition failed most, perhaps, was on a more personal level. Alcoholism and alcohol abuse remain significant social problems, affecting more than 17 million American adults and their families. Today’s problem of persistent homelessness, often linked to substance abuse and mental illnesses, has the same roots as the problem of drunkenness in the nineteenth century. Parents still worry about protecting their children, especially when government statistics show that an estimated 5,000 young people under the age of twenty-one die each year from alcohol-related car crashes or injuries.”

Her final summing up says it well:

“Today, each of us is accountable for our own behavior, and adult drinking is a matter of choice and personal responsibility. The days of outright prohibition are gone and likely will never return. But the powerful experience of prohibition continues to color our laws, our debates, and our personal lives. And the problems that brought us the Eighteenth Amendment — the pain that substance abuse inflicts on families, the devastation of alcoholism, and the impact of drinking on young people — remain a challenge to current and future generations.”

So in this book you’ve got an even-handed look at Prohibition that also manages to be gripping and fascinating. It’s written for children and young adults, but I think most adults will also find themselves learning a lot from this book.

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Source: This review is based on a book I received at the YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Awards Reception and had signed by the author.

Review of I Want My Hat Back, by Jon Klassen

I Want My Hat Back

by Jon Klassen

Candlewick Press, 2011. 36 pages.
Starred Review
2012 Geisel Honor Book
2011 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #4 Picture Books

This book is brilliant. I was happy it won a Geisel Honor for a book for beginning readers, because it’s written in a way that makes it easy for beginning readers and tells a story that will delight them when they understand what’s happened.

I have a co-worker whose favorite picture books are ones where someone gets eaten. I made sure to bring this book straight to her when I checked it out. I also handed it to my teenage son to read. It’s the kind of book everyone enjoys.

The illustrations are simple and flat, with the eyes looking straight at the reader. The text is color coded for the speaker, with a bear walking through the pages looking for his hat. He wants his hat. He loves his hat. Each animal he meets, he asks, “Have you seen my hat?” After their various responses, he says, “OK. Thank you anyway.”

Eventually, after he’s lying down in despair, a deer asks him what his hat looks like. When he describes it, the bear — and the reader — suddenly remember where he’s seen it before. This moment of realization is portrayed so cleverly with a red page and wide open eyes.

Describing this book takes more words than are in the book — and reading the book is so much better. The ending is left ambiguous for the tender-hearted, but most kids will be proud to figure out what really happened. And you have to admit, the bear is repeating what was said to him.

I promise all ages will enjoy this book! Check it out and read it yourself.

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Review of A Ball for Daisy, by Chris Raschka

A Ball for Daisy

by Chris Raschka

Schwartz and Wade Books, New York, 2011. 32 pages.
Starred Review
2012 Caldecott Medal Winner
2011 Sonderbooks Stand-out: Picture Books #7

Here’s a truly wonderful wordless picture book. Chris Raschka portrays the heights and depths of emotion with simple painted lines and colors.

A Ball for Daisy features a little dog named Daisy. You can clearly see that Daisy loves her red ball. She plays with it, wags her tail when she catches it, and cuddles up next to it for a nap.

But when Daisy and her owner take it to the park, another dog begins to play, and he pops Daisy’s ball. Daisy’s sadness when this happens is unmistakeable.

Fortunately, there’s a happy ending as the other dog and its owner make things right the next day.

The pictures in this book are exuberant and varied, making the simple story great fun to read. The pages where Daisy’s trying to figure out what happened to her ball include shaking the limp casing, howling, and just being sad. The pages where Daisy is playing or sleeping reflect Daisy’s joyful and unworried existence. There’s a nice circular feeling as the end echoes the beginning, with Daisy cozying up to her new ball. All’s right in the world.

What child doesn’t know what it feels like to lose something? The story is universal, and can be “read” by the very young, yet will still fascinate older people with the beauty of the artwork.

I’m pleased with the Caldecott committee’s decision this year, as I have a feeling children will be enjoying this book for years to come.

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Review of Ship Breaker, by Paolo Bacigalupi

Ship Breaker

by Paolo Bacigalupi

Little, Brown, and Company, New York, 2010. 326 pages.
Starred Review
2011 Printz Award Winner
2010 National Book Award Finalist
2011 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #2 Other Teen Fiction

Ship Breaker tells the story of a boy caught on the wrong side of progress in a future world after the Age of Acceleration has ended. The story is gripping, with Nailer in life-or-death danger on every page. Yet Paolo Bacigalupi builds a world that shows the consequences of society’s actions now, without ever letting the story slow down to tell us what’s going on. We learn through the eyes of the characters.

The book begins with Nailer crawling through the ducts of an old oil tanker, lit only by LED glowpaint on his forehead. He’s after the light stuff – copper wiring, steel clips, things that can be dragged out to his crew waiting outside.

The author doesn’t have to tell us they’re poor. He describes the wire being pulled out of the duct, “She sucked the wire out like a rice noodle from a bowl of Chen’s soup ration.” We begin to understand that he’s scavenging parts when we read about the new clipper ships: “Replacements for the massive coal- and oil-burning wrecks that he and his crew worked to destroy all day long: gull-white sails, carbon-fiber hulls, and faster than anything except a maglev train.”

Nailer was too slow in there, and he needs to go back in to get more scavenge before a big storm hits. He forgets to renew his LED paint, and gets caught in the dark. That’s okay, he’s finding plenty of copper wire that leads him out – until a duct collapses under him and he falls into a tank of oil.

“How could he die in such a stupid way? This wasn’t even a storage tank. Just some room full of pooled waste oil. It was a joke, really. Lucky Strike had found an oil pocket on a ship and bought his way free. Nailer had found one and it was going to kill him.

I’m going to drown in goddamn money.

“Nailer almost laughed at the thought. No one knew exactly how much oil Lucky Strike had found and smuggled out. The man had done it slow, over time. Sneaking it out bucket by bucket until he had enough to buy out his indenture and burn off his work tattoos. But he’d had enough left over to set himself up as a labor broker selling slots into the very heavy crews that he’d escaped. Just a little oil had done so much for Lucky Strike, and Nailer was up to his neck in the damn stuff.”

Then one of his crewmates, Sloth, finds him. He begs her to bring help, to get him out, but she can’t resist the thought of pulling her own Lucky Strike. But when Nailer does find a way out, even though the oil goes out with him, Sloth is exposed as a traitor, and Nailer’s new nickname is Lucky Boy, because everyone knows he should have died.

That dramatic incident is important, because after the storm Nailer and his crewmate Pima find a wrecked clipper ship with one lone survivor. The rings on the girl’s fingers alone would be enough to set them up for life. But Nailer doesn’t have the heart to kill the girl, because he now knows what it was like to be left for dead. That incident gets him thinking throughout the book about what it means to be family, what it means to be Crew.

The tension in this book doesn’t let up for a second, and it’s life-or-death danger on almost every page. Nailer and Pima aren’t the only ones to find the girl, and the group with Nailer’s father is not at all interested in keeping her alive, only in getting money from her.

They go from one danger to another, with Nailer trying to figure out not only what’s the right thing to do, but also how to stay alive.

This book is a thriller all the way along, with a never-flagging plot. And it presents hard-hitting commentary and questions about our way of life now.

I finally read this book when taking a class on the Printz Award. It definitely seems worthy of the award it won: Besides telling a rip-roaring story, it warns us that in our policies even now, we should look out for the little guys. We should think about the consequences of the things we do.

Here are my notes on his brilliant acceptance speech at the Printz Awards.

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2011 Cybils Finalists

Now that I’ve posted my own favorites read in 2011, I can stand to read the lists of Cybils Finalists! I’m very proud to be a book blogger, part of the Kidlitosphere, the people who do the Cybils Awards. With the Cybils Awards, the judges (book bloggers) try to balance literary quality with Kid Appeal. They want these to be award winners that kids and teens will actually want to read. I think they achieve this goal.

Another cool thing about the Cybils is the philosophy behind the Finalists. There are two rounds of judging, Finalists, and then one winner in each category. I’ve talked with some Cybils panelists, and they try to come up with a representative group of books for that category. You won’t find all historical fiction with girl protagonists, as sometimes happens with the Newbery. They are looking for a well-rounded list of the top books, and I think they also achieve this goal.

This year, I tried to nominate early, because last year all my favorite books had already been nominated. To my delight, three of my nominees are Finalists!

Those are:
Tuesdays at the Castle, by Jessica Day George, in the category of Middle Grade Fantasy and Science Fiction;

The Great Wall of Lucy Wu, by Wendy Wan-Long Shang, in the category of Middle Grade Fiction;

Dodsworth in Rome, by Tim Egan, in the category of Easy Readers.

These are all great books, and I honestly hope each one wins, though at this point, I’m simply excited that they are Finalists!