Review of The London Eye Mystery, by Siobhan Dowd

london_eye_mysteryThe London Eye Mystery

by Siobhan Dowd

David Fickling Books, New York, 2007. Originally published in Great Britain, 2007. 323 pages.
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2010: #5 Other Teen Fiction

“We took Salim to the Eye because he’d never been up before. A stranger came up to us in the queue, offering us a free ticket. We took it and gave it to Salim. We shouldn’t have done this, but we did. He went up on his own at 11.32, 24 May, and was due to come down at 12.02 the same day. He turned and waved to Kat and me as he boarded, but you couldn’t see his face, just his shadow. They sealed him in with twenty other people whom we didn’t know.

“Kat and I tracked Salim’s capsule as it made its orbit. When it reached its highest point, we both said, ‘NOW!’ at the same time and Kat laughed and I joined in. That’s how we knew we’d been tracking the right one. We saw the people bunch up as the capsule came back down, facing northeast towards the automatic camera for the souvenir photograph. They were just dark bits of jackets, legs, dresses and sleeves.

“Then the capsule landed. The doors opened and the passengers came out in twos and threes. They walked off in different directions. Their faces were smiling. Their paths probably never crossed again.

“But Salim wasn’t among them.

“We waited for the next capsule and the next and the one after that. He still didn’t appear. Somewhere, somehow, in the thirty minutes of riding the Eye, in his sealed capsule, he had vanished off the face of the earth. This is how having a funny brain that runs on a different operating system from other people’s helped me to figure out what had happened.”

This mystery reminds me of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, narrated as it is by someone whose “brain runs on a different operating system from other people’s.” This one is much less grim and offers an intriguing mystery with a believable solution.

This book is, fittingly, more cerebral than emotional, since Ted isn’t very good at reading emotions. Though we can see the emotions of everyone in his family are on edge when Salim disappears, and the author handles it well.

I’m not sure when I’ve last read such an enjoyable mystery appropriate for middle school students through teens. Ted is a young teen himself, but the reader can believe that he had the insight and noticed the details to solve the mystery. It isn’t a case, as in some mysteries for young people, of just happening to deal with stupid adults.

My biggest regret, after reading this book, is that I never went up in the London Eye when I was in London.

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Review of Hello Baby! by Mem Fox and Steve Jenkins

hello_babyHello Baby!

by Mem Fox

illustrated by Steve Jenkins

Beach Lane Books, New York, 2009. 32 pages.

Okay, this one you simply have to look at yourself. Yes, again Mem Fox has created lyrical, soothing rhymes to share with a baby:

“Hello, baby!
Who are you?
Are you a monkey with clever toes?
Perhaps you’re a porcupine, twitching its nose.
Are you an eagle, exploring the skies?
Perhaps you’re a gecko with rolling eyes.”

But what makes this book stunning and unforgettable are the incredibly detailed cut-paper illustrations by Steve Jenkins. I’ve raved about his illustrations before, in my reviews of Actual Size and Dogs and Cats. They only seem to get better with each new book. When I saw Hello Baby! I had to pass it around to my co-workers to watch them marvel as well. He makes cut paper look alive.

These animals aren’t necessarily the traditional ones you’d teach your baby, including warthogs and geckos. But I’m sure the visual feast here will capture your child’s attention. There’s a final cozy question:

“Then who are you, baby?
Wait, let me guess–
Are you my treasure?
The answer is . . .

I like the way they made the hands reaching out to each other a range of colors, so you can see almost anyone’s hue there. That’s one place it doesn’t look as lifelike, because no real person’s hand has all those colors, but the use of mottled paper in that place works so that it could apply to anyone.

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Review of Maybe Yes, Maybe No, Maybe Maybe, by Susan Patron

maybeMaybe Yes, Maybe No, Maybe Maybe
by Susan Patron
pictures by Dorothy Donahue

Orchard Books, New York, 1993. 87 pages.

I love Susan Patron’s Lucky books so much (The Higher Power of Lucky and Lucky Breaks), that I wanted to read her earlier book.

Maybe Yes, Maybe No, Maybe Maybe is a beginning chapter book that gently shows PK, a girl in between two sisters, dealing with big changes with grace. This story is not as deeply profound as the Lucky books, but you can see some of the same storytelling seeds. PK has some of the same quirky individuality as Lucky, which makes both girls seem true and alive.

PK’s big sister Megan is almost a teenager, is Gifted, is getting hormones, and is changing in so many ways. She no longer comes to listen to the stories PK tells to her little sister Rabbit while Rabbit sits in the bathtub getting clean and wrinkled. PK finds the stories in the hamper where they’ve rubbed off people’s skin.

But Mama says they need to move to a bigger place, a place that won’t have the built-in laundry hamper. How will PK find the stories? Even her friend Bike is upset.

Based on Susan Patron’s Newbery acceptance speech, there’s a lot of her own story in this tale. Perhaps that’s what makes it feel so warm and genuine. A nice beginning chapter book about dealing with big changes with grace.

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Review of Perfect You, by Elizabeth Scott

perfect_youPerfect You
by Elizabeth Scott

Simon Pulse, New York, 2008. 282 pages.

After reading The Breakup Bible one night, I read Perfect You the next night. (And, yes, both absorbed me enough that I read them well into the night.) Both are among Fairfax County Public Library’s Summer Reading Program selections. Both involve teen relationships, and both were oddly applicable and comforting to someone going through a midlife divorce.

In The Breakup Bible, a teen deals with the loss of her boyfriend and doesn’t handle it terribly well. In Perfect You, a teen deals with the loss of her long-time best friend, and also has a hard time coping.

In both, the main character had to learn to stop obsessing about the past and focus instead on good things happening without the once-loved one there. In both, they had to learn to actually live their lives now. To choose to be happy.

Meanwhile, I love the absolutely horrendous parents that Elizabeth Scott puts into her novels. If you ever thought your parents were embarrassing, listen to the opening of Perfect You:

“Vitamins had ruined my life.

“Not that there was much left to ruin, but still.

“I know blaming vitamins for my horrible life sounds strange. After all, vitamins are supposed to keep people healthy. Also, they’re inanimate objects. But thanks to them I was stuck in the Jackson Center Mall watching my father run around in a bee costume.

“I sank into the chair by our cash register as Dad walked up to two women. They looked around when he started talking, searching for a way out. They wouldn’t find one. In our section of the mall, there wasn’t much around, which was how we could afford our booth.

“I watched the women smile and step away, an almost dance I’d seen plenty over the few days I’d worked here. After they left, Dad came over to me, grinning, and said, ‘Kate, I think I made a sale! Those two women I talked to said they’d tell their husbands about the reformulated B Buzz! tablets. Isn’t that great? Now I think I’ll fly — get it? — down to the department store and see if I can give samples to people as they walk out.'”

Kate’s Sophomore year is going badly. She lost her best friend, who suddenly changed from a fat girl to one of the popular crowd. Her Dad quit his job to sell vitamins. And she finds herself attracted to a guy with a bad reputation whom she doesn’t even like. Or does she?

Perfect You is a fun and entertaining read, with a surprising amount of wisdom. I’d been missing my husband of twenty years, who was once my best friend, and reading about someone else coping with a lost best friend was surprisingly therapeutic.

As Kate says,

“But things change. Stuff happens. And you know what? Life goes on. In fact, that’s what life is. Who’d have thought Grandma would be right about anything, much less something so important?”

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Review of The Breakup Bible, by Melissa Kantor

The Breakup Bible
by Melissa Kantor

Hyperion Paperbacks, New York, 2007. 265 pages.

High school Junior Jennifer Lewis’s almost-too-good-to-be-true boyfriend suddenly decided to “just be friends.” She is not handling it well.

When her well-meaning grandma gives her a book of advice called The Breakup Bible, Jennifer is ready to throw it in the trash. She continues on, obsessed with Max, analyzing his every word to her, wondering if he’s thinking about getting back together.

Then she finds out the identity of the real reason he broke up with her, and her devastation is complete.

This time, Nana comes over and reads the book aloud:

“‘”So he’s with someone else,”‘ she read. ‘”Yeah, it hurts. Yeah, you miss him. But you know what? You’re not going to miss him for long. Because if you follow my simple steps, you can go from heartache to happiness before you can say, I’m over you!“‘

“Nana was looking up at me, a triumphant expression on her face. ‘See?’ she said. ‘You’re not the only one.’

“‘Nana, you don’t understand,’ I said. ‘That book –‘ I pointed at it. ‘Books like that don’t help.’ Had Nana not observed the obese hordes with their terrible hair and bad jeans crowding the self-help aisles at Barnes & Noble, reading books like Who Moved My Destiny? and You’re Not Weird, You’re Special!

“‘Just how do you know that, Miss Smartypants?’ She pointed at me. ‘You won’t even give it a chance.’ Then her features softened, and she smiled. ‘Give it a chance, darling. For me, for Nana.'”

Jennifer does give it a chance, for her grandma’s sake. It doesn’t, perhaps, go quite like the book’s author intended, but Jennifer does, little by little, make progress in getting over Max.

I’m a little embarrassed by how comforted I was by reading about a teenager getting over a breakup and how oddly similar the principles of recovery are for someone getting over a midlife divorce.

In both cases, it’s helpful to remind yourself that there are some good things about not having him in your life, and to focus on interests you can get excited about for YOU.

It’s also highly therapeutic to read about someone else handling it badly! It’s easy to see in Jennifer’s case where her faithful love is misplaced, but anyone who’s ever been there will feel plenty of compassion. And I never noticed before just how funny a breakup can be.

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Review of Home of the Brave, by Katherine Applegate


Home of the Brave

by Katherine Applegate

Square Fish (Feiwel and Friends), 2007.  267 pages.

Starred review.

Sonderbooks Stand-out 2010: #1 Other Children’s Fiction

Kek has come to Minnesota in winter from his home in Sudan.  War has made him lose everything — his father, his brother, his home, and their family’s cows.  He last saw his mother in the refugee camp before the soldiers came there, too.  He is staying with his aunt and Ganwar, his older cousin who came to America before him.  They too lost their family and home, and Ganwar lost a hand to the war.

To say that winter in Minnesota is different from anything Kek has ever known before is an understatement.  The cold is like claws on his skin.  The brightness of the snow burns his eyes.  He tries to help his aunt by cleaning her dishes in what people call the washing machine.  No one told him that machine was only for clothes.

But then Kek sees something he does understand — a cow, old and neglected.  The owner is old herself and isn’t sure she can keep her farm, but while she does, Kek can help.

Kek’s story is beautiful and lyrical.  We see the strange new world through his eyes, and see his inspiring ability to hold onto hope.  Kek’s optimism in the face of overwhelming difficulties uplifts everyone around him, even the cow.  And the reader will find his story uplifting as well.

When Kek does get discouraged, when the difficulties seem insurmountable, we are pulling for him with all our hearts.

I like Kek’s voice, simple but lyrical.  Here is a little section:

“The next week,

my ESL class takes a field trip to the zoo.

Field trip is another English trick,

like raining cats and dogs

and a barrel of laughs

because there is no field

and it’s not a far trip

like the one I took from Africa.


“We take a yellow bus.

When we get to the zoo,

we must stand in line to get our tickets.

The other kids complain,

but I am used to lines.

One day in the refugee camp

I stood in line for nine hours

to get a handful of corn.


“At last a guiding lady walks us past

birds and lizards,

fish and butterflies,

zebras and elephants.

We’re looking for animals

from our homelands….


“We are supposed to be watching the animals,

but I can’t stop looking at the people

looking at all the animals.


“A class of little children

laughs at the pigs

rolling happily in the cold mud.

Their class looks like our class,

or maybe we look like them:

many colors and shapes

and words.


“Of all the things I didn’t know

about America,

this is the most amazing:

I didn’t know

there would be so many tribes

from all over the world.

How could I have imagined

the way they walk through the world

side by side

without fear,

all free to gaze at the same sky

with the same hopes?”

This book is beautiful and inspiring, and will linger in your memory.  It gives you a taste of the courage and hope refugees must call up simply to face each new day.

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Review of Stealing Heaven, by Elizabeth Scott


Stealing Heaven

by Elizabeth Scott

HarperTeen, 2008.  307 pages.

Starred review
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2010: #3 Other Teen Fiction

Danielle is eighteen years old.  She’s been stealing things as long as she can remember.  Her Mom is good at what she does, and she’s trained Dani how to get the job done.

Dani’s never stayed in one place for long, and she’s never gone to school.  Her mom says, “Some kids go to school and leave not knowing how to write their own name.  You can do that and you can tell plate from sterling just by looking at it.  That’s education.”

When they decide to work in a beach town called Heaven, things begin to go wrong.  Dani meets a nice girl at the beach, who turns out to be the daughter of the owners of the richest place in town — the one her Mom plans to steal from.  Then a cute guy keeps running into her and seems interested in her — and he turns out to be a cop.

Having a friend or a boyfriend has always been out of the question for Dani.  But now she’s getting pulled in.  What will her mother say if she finds out?  What will Dani’s new friends say if they find out that she’s a thief?

This book pulls you into Dani’s dilemma as a young adult torn between what she’s always known, what she’s good at, and the call of a life that’s different, a life with relationships that last.

This is another book I couldn’t stop reading until I’d finished it in the early hours of the morning.  The story is gripping, and you do find yourself caring about Dani, but understanding her struggle.  Elizabeth Scott makes the characters distinctive and interesting, but completely believable.  I don’t think I’ve never met a professional silver thief, but now I feel like I know what that would be like.  I’m going to have to read more of her books.

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Review of Lucky Breaks, by Susan Patron


Lucky Breaks

by Susan Patron

ginee seo books, Atheneum Books for Young Readers, New York, 2009.  181 pages.

Starred review.

Sonderbooks Stand-out 2010: #4 Other Children’s Fiction

Lucky, who is about to turn eleven, is someone I can’t help loving.  She’s intrepid, but she doesn’t always use the best judgment.  She’s a good friend with a big heart, but she sometimes does mean things in spite of herself.  Susan Patron writes in a way that makes you feel for Lucky as if you yourself were, once again, almost almost eleven.

Lucky Breaks is a sequel to the Newbery-winning The Higher Power of Lucky.  The themes are bigger in the first book, because Lucky’s dealing with the death of her mother and hoping Brigitte will adopt her.  While the issues in the second book are not as cosmic, they are still important — finding and keeping friends.

This book finds Lucky still helping Brigitte settle into Hard Pan, California, and she meets someone she hopes will become her best friend — a girl to laugh with until they hiccup.

But Paloma’s parents are worried about their daughter spending time in the dangerous desert.  Meanwhile, Lincoln is working on a mysterious knotting project that may take him away from Hard Pan.

Susan Patron’s characters are quirky in so many delightful ways.  Miles’ favorite book has shifted from Go, Dog. Go! to Brain Surgery for Beginners.  Short Sammy is digging a mysterious pit.  And Brigitte is figuring out what makes a person truly American.  You can’t help but feel that they are real people, friends about whom you’re eager to hear the latest news.

As for Lucky — She’s the same exuberant, intrepid, scientifically curious, rarely cautious, delightful young lady we met before, a little further along in her amazing journey of growing up.

Susan Patron promises a third book after this one.  I hope she writes quickly!

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Review of Hate That Cat, by Sharon Creech


Hate That Cat

by Sharon Creech

Joanna Cotler Books (HarperCollins), 2008.  153 pages.

Starred review.

Hooray!  Miss Stretchberry moved up a grade, and Jack is in her class once again!  This wonderful follow-up to Love That Dog features Jack doing further explorations with poetry as well as coming to terms with the cat next door.

Hate That Cat plays with language, as Jack writes poems in the style of poets like William Carlos Williams, Walter Dean Myers, and even Edgar Allen Poe.  (The example poems are included at the back.)

This is a wonderful exploration of what you can do with poetry, but along the way it tells a heart-warming story about Jack, who still misses his dog, Sky.

Here’s a wonderful poem Jack writes about his mother, who is deaf:


(Inspired by Mr. Edgar Allan Poe)

by Jack

See her hands in the air waving here waving there!

What flickering formations

those compositions dare!

How she sing sing sings

in a swish and a bound

bringing sound sound sound

To the silence of the air

to the silentabulation of the hush

and the hums

of the air, air, air, air,

air, air, air–

of the humming and the hushing

of the air.

This book doesn’t take long to read, but it will inspire even an adult reader to look at poetry in a new way.

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Review of In a Blue Room, by Jim Averbeck


In a Blue Room

by Jim Averbeck

illustrated by Tricia Tusa

Harcourt, Orlando, 2008.  32 pages.

Here’s a sweet bedtime storybook.

In a blue room,

Alice bounces,

wide-awake past bedtime.

“Time for bed,” Mama says,

“and I’ve brought flowers for your room.”

“I can only sleep in a blue room,” says Alice.

“Blue is my favorite.

And those —

aren’t —


“Ah. . . but smell,” Mama says.

Mama keeps bringing more lovely things that aren’t blue, but are wonderfully soothing.  Alice keeps protesting, but getting sleepier.

The lovely part is that, when the light goes out and night falls, sure enough, everything in the room is blue.

The story is told in lyrical, soothing language, just right for bedtime.  Good night!

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