Review of Al Capone Does My Shirts, by Gennifer Choldenko

al_capone_does_my_shirtsAl Capone Does My Shirts,

by Gennifer Choldenko

G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, 2004. 225 pages.
2005 Newbery Honor Book
Starred Review

I had meant to read this book for a very long time, since my sister was working as a park ranger at Alcatraz when the book was published, so I have an extra fondness and interest in the island. I still haven’t ever been there myself, but superimposed her stories of camping out on the island with what was in this book, and, well, I have to visit some time! (Wendy, have you read this book yet? What do you think of it? Please comment!)

I finally got Al Capone Does My Shirts read when I took an online class on the Newbery Medal and had to read two Honor books from the same year as one of the Medal winners I read. I chose to read Al Capone Does My Shirts, and Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy, having already read The Voice That Challenged a Nation, all from 2005, the year that Kira-Kira won the Medal. Now, I might have chosen the Medal differently, but I do have to agree that all four of those books are truly distinguished contributions to American literature for children. (And one of the things we learned in the class is that you may not agree that the Medal winner is the one best book of the year, but you can be pretty darn sure that the set of books honored is going to be a collection of excellent books.)

In Al Capone Does My Shirts, Moose Flanagan has just had to move with his family to Alcatraz Island. It’s 1935 and jobs are scarce, and his father got a good job offer as an electrician there (with some time as guard on the side), so they have to move so they can afford to have his sister Natalie go to the Esther P. Marinoff School, where his mother is convinced Natalie will learn to go on to live a normal life.

Moose is not happy about moving to Alcatraz. He’s not happy about his new school, he’s not happy to watch his sister while his mother takes on extra work, and he’s especially not happy about the warden’s daughter who looks sweet on the outside but seems bent on breaking all the rules and getting everyone else in trouble.

You can tell Moose is a great brother. He knows what Natalie needs and he’s extra considerate of what’s going to upset her (like losing her box of buttons or letting them get messed up). But he’s just a kid himself. Somehow, he’s the one people want to blame when other people’s schemes go awry.

Watching Moose cope with a new home — on a prison island, no less — new routines with his parents’ jobs, making new friends and trying to fit in, and even finding a way to help his parents get his sister to the desired school, all gives us lots to root for and sympathize with. This is an interesting, humorous and inspiring story about a quirky fact of American history — that families actually lived on Alcatraz Island, in a separate compound from the prisoners.

Gennifer Choldenko has recently written a sequel, Al Capone Shines My Shoes. I assure you that I will NOT wait so long to read it!

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Review of The Storm in the Barn, by Matt Phelan

storm_in_the_barnThe Storm in the Barn

by Matt Phelan

Candlewick Press, 2009. 201 pages.
Starred Review.

The Storm in the Barn, like L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz, is a uniquely American fairy tale, but this one is written in the form of a graphic novel.

Given the setting of the Dust Bowl, this book shows us poor dejected Jack Clark, a kid who’s eleven years old and hasn’t ever seen rain since he was seven. The doctor thinks he may have dust dementia, as his sister has dust pneumonia.

Jack isn’t sure himself. Is it dust dementia, or is he really seeing an evil man made out of a thunderstorm, with lightning in his bag, a man who is hiding in the old abandoned barn and causing all their troubles? If Jack can release the lightning, can he save the country?

The images in this book are haunting and surreal. They will leave the reader wanting to know more about this bit of American history. I like the way the author weaves in Jack’s sister reading from Baum’s Oz books, since telling American fairy tales was exactly what Baum also tried to do, along with Jack tales from Europe that fit right in with Jack’s own story.

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Review of The Help, by Kathryn Stockett

helpThe Help

by Kathryn Stockett

Amy Einhorn Books (G. P. Putnam’s Sons), 2009. 451 pages.
Starred Review.
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2010: #2 Fiction

First, thank you to my friend Intlxpatr for recommending this book. I finished it at 3 AM this morning and am still thinking about it.

I’m not usually a fan of books about civil rights era issues, but this one is so warm and personal, I was completely won over.

Set in Jackson, Mississippi, in the early sixties, the book speaks from the perspectives of three women, Aibileen and Minny, black maids who “help” in the homes of white women, and Miss Skeeter, a recent graduate of the University of Mississippi who is living in her domineering parents’ home, and would like to be a writer.

Aibileen gives tender loving care to a little girl whose mother sees her as an annoyance. The mother frantically spends her time at the sewing machine trying to sew covers to make things look nicer than they are.

Minny has recently been fired by Miss Hilly, the queen of Jackson society. And Minny, who always has had trouble keeping her true thoughts quiet, did the Terrible Thing to Miss Hilly. If Miss Hilly gets her way, and Miss Hilly always gets her way, Minny will never work in Jackson again.

But then Miss Hilly’s old boyfriend’s wife, who was poor white trash and desperately wants to get into the League, needs someone to help around the house and teach her how to cook. Only she doesn’t want her husband to know.

Meanwhile Miss Skeeter has an idea. What if she writes a book from the perspective of the maids? Only, how can she get anyone to talk to her? And if they do talk to her and get found out, what will happen to them?

One of the beautiful things about this book is that it doesn’t only show ugly things about racism. It also shows beautiful ways that people of both races lived and worked together and loved each other.

I do love the way the nasty self-important Miss Hilly gets her comeuppance, and the realistic course Miss Skeeter’s quest for romance and life purpose takes.

At first, I found it hard to believe that this book really took place in America the year or two before I was born. So it was strange when little cultural bits from my childhood came into it (like Shake N Bake!). The world that the white people of the book inhabit is as completely foreign to me as that of the help.

But that’s what this book does so beautifully. It does what it sets out to do, showing us, despite all the external differences:

“Wasn’t that the point of the book? For women to realize, We are just two people. Not that much separates us. Not nearly as much as I’d thought.

I found myself feeling drawn into the lives of the maids, and also the lives of the white ladies they were working for. The book was doing exactly what books do best, showing me a window into other people’s souls. This is a beautiful, warm, and inspiring story.

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Review of Shiloh, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor


by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor

Yearling (Bantam Doubleday Dell), 1992. First published in 1991. 144 pages.
Winner of the 1992 Newbery Medal
Starred Review

Here’s another book I read as one of my assignments for a class I took on the Newbery Medal. It seems like the ultimate Newbery Medal winner — suitable for third or fourth graders, this is a heart-warming story about a boy and a dog. Look at that — a book with a dog on the cover and an award sticker, and the dog doesn’t even die! (See No More Dead Dogs, by Gordon Korman, to get a feel for how rare that is.)

Marty finds a beagle who’s run away from his owner, and the beagle is clearly afraid of getting hit. Marty names him Shiloh, after the place where he found him. But the dog belongs to Judd Travers, and his father makes Marty give him back. When Marty hears how Judd plans to punish Shiloh for running away, his heart is sickened.

Then Shiloh runs away again. Marty simply cannot bear to bring Shiloh back. But how long can he keep a secret from his family, his best friend, and, most of all, Judd Travers?

I like Marty’s reflections on his moral dilemma:

Thinking about an earlier incident where he lied, he says:

When Ma asked me again about that rabbit, I gulped and said yes, and she made me get down on my knees and ask God’s forgiveness, which wasn’t so bad. I honestly felt better afterward. But then she said that Jesus wanted me to go in the next room and tell Dara Lynn what I’d done, and Dara Lynn threw a fit all over again. Threw a box of Crayolas at me and could have broke my nose. Called me a rotten, greedy pig. If that made Jesus sad, Ma never said.

About Shiloh:

“Jesus,” I whisper finally, “which you want me to do? Be one hundred percent honest and carry that dog back to Judd so that one of your creatures can be kicked and starved all over again, or keep him here and fatten him up to glorify your creation?”

The question seemed to answer itself, and I’m pretty proud of that prayer. Repeat it to myself so’s to remember it in case I need to use it again. If Jesus is anything like the story cards from Sunday school make him out to be, he ain’t the kind to want a thin, little beagle to be hurt.

Even as short as it is, this book has surprising depth. Marty comes to see another side even to Judd Travers. But mostly it’s a heart-warming story about a boy who loves a dog.

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Review of Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, by Mildred D. Taylor

roll_of_thunderRoll of Thunder, Hear My Cry

by Mildred D. Taylor

Puffin Books, 1997. First published in 1976. 276 pages.
Newbery Medal Winner 1977
Starred Review
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2010: #3 Other Children’s Fiction

I’ve been taking a class offered by ALSC, the Association for Library Service to Children, called The Newbery Medal: Past, Present and Future. It’s a wonderful class, and one of the assignments was to read a Medal-winning book from each decade that the award was offered. For my 1970s selection, I chose Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, because that’s on the Fairfax County Public Schools list for 7th-8th graders, and is checked out frequently.

The book is truly warm and wonderful. I’m going to list it as children’s fiction, because the characters are children, the oldest of whom is twelve. But the book is on the long side and the subject matter is serious, so I do think the schools are right to recommend it to middle schoolers or upper elementary.

Cassie and her three brothers live in Mississippi in 1933. Their family owns its farm, and has since their Grandpa bought the land in 1887. But times are hard, and their Papa had to go work on the railroad in Louisiana in order to pay the taxes on the land.

The book opens as the Logan family makes the long walk to school, with Little Man especially proud of his new school clothes. When the bus for the white children passes, they have to run down the bank, getting all covered with red dust, just the beginning of a series of encounters with that bus, over which the Logans eventually get a delightful revenge.

The book is about prejudice, but the story is told with humor and dignity. There’s a scene at the beginning with old textbooks that reminds me strongly of a similar scene in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.

Eventually, the stakes get much higher than a school bus getting them dirty or Cassie having to apologize to a white girl she bumped.

This is a wonderful story that teaches history along the way and gives you lots of food for thought.

As Mama says to Cassie:
“Baby, we have no choice of what color we’re born or who our parents are or whether we’re rich or poor. What we do have is some choice over what we make of our lives once we’re here.”

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Review of Hattie Big Sky, by Kirby Larson

hattie_big_skyHattie Big Sky

by Kirby Larson

Delacorte Press, 2006. 289 pages.
A 2007 Newbery Honor Book.

I actually met Kirby Larson when I went to the 2007 ALA (American Library Association) Annual Conference in Washington, DC, when she saw my SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) bag and commented on it. Imagine my delight to learn that she was there to receive a Newbery Honor Award!

It took me a long time to get around to reading her book, but when I finally did, I thought the award well-deserved.

Hattie Wright has received an inheritance from an uncle she didn’t even know — a homestead claim out in Montana. “All” she has to do is “prove up” by cultivating forty acres and setting four hundred eighty rods of fence and paying the final fees, and she has ten months left in which to do it.

Hattie takes on the giant task, because the challenge appeals to her much more than being the poor orphaned relation with her other aunt and uncle in Iowa. It’s 1917, and World War I is going on, and Hattie writes about her experiences to her childhood friend who is off in the fighting.

Meanwhile, in Montana, Hattie faces all kinds of challenges with weather against her and other disasters. The other homesteaders help, especially Perilee Mueller and her houseful of children. Perilee is married to a man who only speaks German, who isn’t popular during World War I. But Hattie can only see their kind hearts. Another neighbor, handsome but not kind to the Muellers, offers to “help” Hattie by buying her claim. But Montana with its big sky is already in her heart.

Kirby Larson based this book on her own great-grandmother’s story. It’s another pioneer tale, but set in a different time and place than any I’ve read before. An inspiring story of a young woman discovering her own strength to face challenges and the value of true friends.

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Review of The Case of the Missing Marquess, by Nancy Springer

missing_marquessThe Case of the Missing Marquess

An Enola Holmes Mystery

by Nancy Springer

Philomel Books, 2006. 216 pages.
Starred Review
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2010: #5 Other Children’s Fiction

I’ve long heard about the Enola Holmes Mysteries. I’m so glad I finally got around to reading one!

This is the first story of Sherlock Holmes’ little sister, Enola. She’s something of an embarrassment to the family. She’s much younger than Sherlock and Mycroft and doesn’t act like a proper young lady at all.

When Enola’s mother disappears on her fourteenth birthday, Sherlock and Mycroft arrive to take the estate in hand, and of course get Enola settled in a nice boarding school to become a proper young lady. Enola has other ideas.

Enola is resourceful, and her mother has even left clues to help her. Setting out on her own, in disguise, can Enola elude her brother, the world’s greatest detective? Along the way, Enola encounters a case of her own to solve, and she has insights that even great detectives don’t have access to.

I’ll definitely be reading more Enola Holmes stories. She’s feisty, smart, and resourceful. Her perspective on the mysteries around her is refreshingly clear-sighted. And she can outwit Sherlock Holmes!

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Review of Grandfather’s Dance, by Patricia MacLachlan

grandfathers_danceGrandfather’s Dance

by Patricia MacLachlan

Joanna Cotler Books (HarperCollins), 2006. 84 pages.
Starred Review

I love Patricia MacLachlan’s gentle stories of the Witting family. With simple language, easy for a child first starting chapter books to read, she conveys worlds of emotion and describes the complex bonds of a family.

Anna, who was once the child narrator telling the story of Sarah, Plain and Tall, is now grown up and getting married. Her young half-sister Cassie tells the story of the family coming together to celebrate.

Her little brother Jack is full of toddler quirks and funny expressions and has a special relationship with Grandfather, who is feeling old these days. Cassie wonders about weddings and watches the family come together, with the Aunts arriving from Maine. Papa buys a car, which delights them.

Hmm. When I describe the simple events that happen, it doesn’t begin to convey the worlds of emotion that Patricia MacLachlan pours into them.

This is another beautiful installment in a delightful series of historical chapter books. If you haven’t read them yet, begin with Sarah, Plain and Tall, and go on to Skylark, Caleb’s Story, and More Perfect Than the Moon. If you have read any of the earlier books, you won’t need me to persuade you to pick up this newest installment. Although they are simple enough for children beginning to read chapter books on their own, they are profound enough for adults.

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Review of The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing Traitor to the Nation, Volume 2: The Kingdom on the Waves, by M. T. Anderson

kingdom_on_the_wavesThe Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing
Traitor to the Nation
Volume II
The Kingdom on the Waves

by M. T. Anderson
Read by Peter Francis James

Books on Tape, 2008. 11 CDs, 13 hours, 25 minutes.
Starred Review

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing is a two-volume work. You shouldn’t read the first volume without reading the second, and you definitely shouldn’t read the second volume without reading the first.

The first volume was set just before the start of the American Revolution. Octavian is a slave in Boston who is brought up in an experiment to see if someone of the Negro race can benefit from a scholarly education.

Octavian does benefit, and his scholarly voice is heard throughout the books.

In The Kingdom on the Waves, Octavian goes to fight for the British, since they have offered freedom to all slaves who fight on their side. This gripping tale has him in battles, facing the Yankee enemy, but also small pox and the danger of being captured and put back into slavery.

Octavian makes new friends in the company of freed slaves, and tells their stories, too. The story of how his old friend Bono escaped and got his exquisite revenge had me laughing out loud. I wanted to share the story with someone, it was so excellent — but it had been set up with the entire earlier volume, so I had to be content with chuckling over it myself.

This book is definitely NOT cheery reading. At one point, I had to look at the print copy and check the last page to make sure Octavian and his friends don’t all die at the end or go back into slavery. Come on, I knew they were on the losing side of the war, and it seemed like every terrible event that could happen was hitting them along the way. I had to know the ending was happy, or I just couldn’t handle it!

All the same, this book is a masterpiece. M. T. Anderson opened my eyes to a part of our country’s history as I never imagined it. He clearly did exhaustive research to make the writing authentic, and with Octavian’s cultured, well-educated voice, wrenches your emotions to care about these people and helps you understand what things must have been like.

The characters are distinct and are portrayed with appropriate voices by Peter Francis James, making the audiobook easy to follow even when the story is on such an epic scale. I admit I’m not sure I would have gotten through the book in print form, as I’ve gotten too much in the habit of quickly reading lighter fare. Almost anything I read is lighter than this, but I felt like I was learning much about history as I listened, and I definitely wanted to know what would happen to the characters. And the beauty of a longer commute is that I don’t begrudge a longer book when I’m listening in the car anyway.

A magnificent and eye-opening conclusion to a compelling story.

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Review of His Majesty’s Dragon, by Naomi Novik

his_majestys_dragonHis Majesty’s Dragon

by Naomi Novik

Read by Simon Vance

Books on Tape, Westminster, MD, 2007. 10 hours, 9 CDs.
Starred Review.
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2010: #5 Fiction

His Majesty’s Dragon reminds me of a Patrick O’Brian naval adventure story — with dragons!

Set in an alternate world where dragons are used for aerial combat, the book opens as Captain Will Lawrence discovers a ready-to-hatch dragon egg on the French ship he has just captured. He orders all the officers to draw straws to decide who will have to give up their life on the navy, harness the dragon, and switch to the lonely life of an aviator. They all know that the new aviator will henceforth have mainly the dragon for company.

However, the newly hatched dragon has his own plans and chooses Lawrence himself. Without having given it thought ahead of time, he names the dragon Temeraire, after a ship he once served on. Then he must leave the Navy to train with Temeraire for the expected imminent invasion by Napoleon’s forces.

The facts of dragon training are presented matter-of-factly, as we learn along with Lawrence how it’s done. It’s all taken as seriously as if these were sailing ships of the time, and you find yourself completely believing in this world and coming to understand the strategies of dragon combat.

As you might expect, despite his youth and inexperience, Temeraire and his captain are drawn into a great battle at the climax. It’s all exciting and fascinating.

I listened to this book on my way to work, and found myself quickly drawn in. Simon Vance presents the different voices so you can recognize who is speaking. I found life in His Majesty’s Aerial Corps to be so intriguing, I quickly forgot it had never really happened.

Yes, an aviator’s life is limited in human companionship, but Lawrence quickly finds that Temeraire’s companionship more than makes up for it.

This is a brilliant book, and I’m looking forward to listening to the rest of the series.

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