Category Archives: Young Adult

AL CAPONE DOES MY SHIRTS by Gennifer Choldenko

The October Mother -Daughter book club was Al Capone Does My Shirts, the first in a series of three by Gennifer Choldenko.


Al Capone Does My Shirts is set on Alcatraz in the 30s. Moose is a 12 year-old boy who has moved to Alcatraz so that his father can work as a prison guard and his older sister Natalie, who has autism (which wasn’t yet recognized as a disorder) can attend a special school in San Francisco. Moose has left behind good friends and a regular baseball game in Santa Monica, and he’s missing them both dearly. On Alcatraz, his friends are limited to the five children of other prison employees, and he has to take the ferry to San Francisco to attend school. Worse, his sister’s admission to the special school is revoked after two days because her condition is more severe than the school had expected. So Moose is forced to take care of his sister in the afternoons, instead of making friends and playing baseball.

My daughter read all three of the Choldenko books last year and loved them, so I included Al Capone Does My Shirts on the Mother-Daughter Book Club list for this year. I had assumed that the book would be focused on the inner workings of the prison and its famous convicts, told from a kid’s perspective. Instead, the book explored Moose’s relationship with his parents and sister, and how Natalie’s autism impacted the family. Moose was forced to take responsibility for his sister at an early age, and his mother, who was so focused on her daughter and trying to “cure” her, barely noticed the sacrifices she asked her son to make.  His father was sympathetic to Moose’s situation, but was helpless to change it because of the double shifts he took on to help the family make ends meet.

I liked Al Capone Does My Shirts. I thought it presented a realistic depiction of autism and how families are forced to adapt to accommodate children with special needs. It was depressing at times, for sure, but realistic. I also liked Moose’s friendships with other kids, particularly the warden’s daughter Piper, a great schemer and manipulator whose heart was ultimately in the right place.

The girls (age 10) and moms had a mixed reaction to the book. Most liked it a lot, while others thought it lagged in the middle and some found it too depressing. But it inspired a good dialogue about Moose and whether it was fair that he had to take so much responsibility for his sister. The girls were also intrigued by Al Capone and how he could exert so much influence even beyond the prison’s walls. There were also questions about whether it is fair to bend the rules to achieve a good end, or if obedience to rules should transcend everything else.

A few of the girls had read the other books in the trilogy (Al Capone Shines My Shoes and Al Capone Does My Homework), and the verdict is that they are even better than Al Capone Does My Shirts.

THE CITY OF EMBER by Jeanne DuPrau

This year, my 10 year-olds and I are kicking off year 5 of our Mother-Daughter book club.

I spent a few weeks this summer compiling our 2014-2015 reading list. Here’s what our group will be reading this year:

Sept: The City of Ember, Jeanne DuPrau
Oct: Al Capone Does My Shirts, Gennifer Choldenko
Nov: The One and Only Ivan, Katherine Applegate
Dec: Out Of My Mind, Sharon Draper
Jan: Red Scarf Girl, Ji-li Jiang
Feb: Because of Mr. Terupt, Rob Buyea
March: Holes, Louis Sachar
April: Running Out of Time, Margaret Peterson Haddix
May: Esperanza Rising, Pam Munoz Ryan
June: The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Elizabeth George Speare

Book #1 is The City of Ember, by Jeanne DuPrau, which we will be discussing in September.


I confess that I wouldn’t have picked this book if it weren’t on the girls’ recommended summer reading list for school, from which they had to read 5 books this summer. I am not into dystopian fiction for adults, so I figured I wouldn’t like it for kids either. But I was pleasantly surprised by The City of Ember.

Ember is a small city which is powered by a huge generator and lit by massive streetlights that go on at 6AM and are turned off at 9PM. Food and household items are sold at stores stocked by massive storerooms run by the city. The library contains books only about topics that are known to its residents, as well as fiction books about things in their imagination. When the book opens, Ember residents have only known years of abundance, with their needs being met by the seemingly endless supplies of goods in the storeroom.

But the city is showing signs of decay and trouble. Supplies are finally starting to run out, and some foods, like canned peaches and creamed corn, are so scarce that they are basically a memory. Basic items like paper, pencils, tools and yarn are almost impossible to come by. Ember residents have learned to recycle and reuse almost everything they have, and their homes are overrun with broken furniture, old clothes, and random broken lamps. Most troubling: the lights are starting to go out with frequency, plunging the town into total darkness and bringing its daily activities to a halt.

In Ember, 12 year-olds are assigned a job when they finish their last year of school. The main character, Lina Mayfleet, is initially assigned a dreaded job in the city’s underground Pipeworks, but a boy in her class named Doon unexpectedly offers to switch with her. He has been assigned the job of messenger, which entails running messages all over the town (the only way townspeople have to get in touch with each other). They each set off for their new roles, where they make disturbing discoveries about the state of the town’s infrastructure (bad) and the morals of its leadership (worse).

Can Lina and Doon find a way to save Ember from its inevitable demise, or will they be stopped by the evil Mayor and his henchmen? Where *is* Ember, and how did it come to be? What is the significance of the strange messages Lina finds in a locked box in her apartment, and do they hold the key to saving the town?

The City of Ember was a relatively quick, suspenseful read. Like I said, I don’t read much dystopian fiction, and I suspect that devotees of this category might find the book pretty predictable. But I found it fresh and surprising, and I think that middle grade readers will also enjoy learning about this very different world and its inhabitants. Lina is a compelling heroine – creative and brave and loyal. The answers to the questions of Ember’s existence are thought-provoking and should prompt a good discussion among the girls about authority and societies for our first meeting back after the summer.

 

WE WERE LIARS by E. Lockhart



I don’t usually read YA fiction that everyone else is talking and blogging about, but I made an exception for We Were Liars by E. Lockhart because someone told me, “Read it. Don’t read about it, just read it.” I was intrigued by her advice, and requested it from the library. The fact that all copies were checked out and I had to wait until it came in only heightened my curiosity. It eventually came in, and I read it.

If you want to replicate my experience, and you’ve been curious about this “Gothic tale of failed romance in an entrenched East Coast family still enslaved to the rigid WASP codes”, then don’t read the rest of this review until you’ve read We Were Liars. (Then come back and tell me what you thought.)

If you want to know more before you commit to We Were Liars, then read on, but beware that it might spoil your experience a bit.

We Were Liars is about a privileged family with an island off of Martha’s Vineyard. Each summer, the patriarch of the family and his wife, along with their three daughters and a collection of grandchildren, come to the island and live in the four estates that have been built, one for each nuclear family. The story is told from the perspective of 15 year-old Cadence, the oldest grandchild. The “Liars” are two of Cadence’s cousins, Johnny and Mirren, and an Indian boy named Gat whose uncle is dating Johnny’s mother.

The Liars are thick as thieves each summer, and the book is rich with the smells and sounds of that epic season, when it seems that each sense is heightened not only by the weather and physical surroundings but also by adolescence and the sense that nothing is ever as important as when you are a teenager. There is a lot of commentary about the family, and the daughters’ infighting and currying favor with the rich grandfather, who controls the pursestrings and the inheritances. Gat serves as the Liars’ conscience: he is the one that points out that Cady never bothers to learn the names of the help and raises questions about income redistribution and the fundamental unfairness of property ownership.

Something happens during that fateful Summer Fifteen, however, when Cady finds herself in the ocean one night, barely dressed, with a head injury so severe that she leaves the island for the rest of the summer and doesn’t return for two years. What happened that night? Why was she on the beach by herself, and why can’t she remember anything about it? Why won’t her cousins and Gat (which whom she is in love) engage with her and fill her in on what they remember?

SPOILER ALERT.

Like fans of “The Crying Game” (she’s a guy!) and “The Sixth Sense” (he sees dead people!), people who have read We Were Liars will tell you not to tell anyone anything about it. Yes, there is a spoiler. I was pretty much on notice that there was going to be a spoiler, and I have to say, I didn’t find it too hard to figure out what it was. Unlike the people on Goodreads who are all, “OH MY GOD I DIDN’T SEE THAT COMING”, I saw it coming. So I was not as blown away by We Were Liars as I might have been, but I did like it. It’s a quick read and I enjoyed the dark and dramatic atmosphere that Lockhart created.  I gave it a solid 3 stars out of 5 on Goodreads.

Have you read it? Did you figure out the spoiler beforehand?

MASTERPIECE by Elise Broach

Our Mother-Daughter book club met over the weekend to discuss Masterpiece by Elise Broach. I think this may have been the most enthusiastically received book we’ve read this year other than Wonder. (When asked to rate the book on a scale of 1 to 10, one girl gave it a 70.)


Masterpiece is a book about art forgery, interspecies friendship, loyalty, and taking risks. James is an 11 year-old boy living in New York City with his distracted, materialistic mother and stepfather. His father, an artist, appears to see him only erratically. But James doesn’t know that there is a family of beetles living in his apartment, and that the youngest beetle, Marvin, is actually a very talented artist. One day, Marvin goes into James’ room and makes a drawing for James’s birthday of the view looking out the window. (He creates the lines by dragging his legs through ink and then transferring the ink to the page). Marvin’s drawing gets mistaken for James’ by his proud father, the three go off to the museum to see more art, and before they know it, James and Marvin find themselves dragged into a complicated scheme to recover a series of Albrecht Durer drawings that were stolen from the Met.

The premise may sound silly or juvenile, but Masterpiece is actually a substantive book that tackles some abstract concepts. If people steal art because they love it so much, should they be forgiven? Is it OK to lie in order to protect people (or creatures) that you love? Is it OK to risk your life to be a good friend? And then the art itself (which is fictional) is based on philosophical topics like Fortitude, Justice and Prudenc, and a good portion of the book focuses on why the artist chose those topics and what he was trying to say.

Masterpiece was a fun read, and even had some suspense in it, as James and Marvin try to recover the stolen works without being caught by the perpetrator. Both the moms and the girls (9 and 10 year-olds) in the book club found a lot to discuss in the book.

Highly recommended for middle grade fiction readers.

WONDER by R. J. Palacio

What can I say about R. J. Palacio’s Wonder that hasn’t already been written about this beloved book? Not much, but I will try.


Wonder was this month’s pick for our Mother-Daughter Book Club. I chose it because my daughter absolutely loved it, and the buzz around it has been tremendous (which usually makes me shy away from a book, but I resisted this time). I didn’t expect that *I* would enjoy reading it as much as I did, since I don’t read much YA or middle grade fiction other than for this book club.

Wonder is the story of fifth-grader August Pullman, who has a terribly disfigured face due to a rare craniofacial genetic abnormality. He describes himself in the beginning of the book by saying, “I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.” August is a smart kid who has been homeschooled by his protective parents. They decide that it is time to send him to school, despite their fears about how he will be treated by his classmates. When the book opens, August is meeting some pre-selected kids from his class whom the principal thinks will be nice to him and help ease the transition to school.

August is a funny, sensitive kid who just wants to be accepted – or even ignored – by the people around him, instead of causing them to shrink away in horror. He is acutely, painfully aware of the effect he has on people. Otherwise, he’s just a normal kid facing the usual ups and downs of growing up. That is partly what makes Wonder so powerful – August could be any of us inside; he’s just different on the surface. In addition to August’s, the book is told from the perspective of some other characters – August’s sister Olivia, her boyfriend Justin and friend Miranda, and two of August’s friends, Summer and Jack. I liked hearing their points of view, which not only rounded out August as a character by getting outside of his head, but also reinforced the book’s theme that everyone has problems and insecurities, and that being kind to those around you can help ease their burdens, whatever they are.

There are a lot of really sad points in the book, particularly when August’s dog dies, when he overhears very hurtful comments made by his best friend, and when he is bullied by older kids while on a school retreat. But Wonder is ultimately an uplifting story. Whether or not the acceptance of his classmates that August enjoys at the end of the book is realistic, it makes for a great message about how to treat other people.

There’s a lot of loneliness in Wonder – not just August’s, but among the other main characters too. I found the most poignant moments to be when they connected, when they really understood each other. So maybe the message of the book isn’t just to be kind, but to empathetic, to put yourself in others’ shoes and try to understand what it’s like to be them. What a great message for kids (of any age).

I liked the writing a lot. I am not sure that the dialogue (internal and spoken) was accurate for fifth graders – it seemed a bit advanced to me – but I’ve read reviews that said that it didn’t seem sophisticated enough, so there you are.

So I am adding my voice to the chorus of fans of this touching book. Highly recommended.

Movie Review: THIS IS US

thisisusposterOne of the perks of having this blog is that occasionally I get offered free tickets to events in the DC area. It doesn’t happen often, and I usually don’t have time to take advantage of them, but when I got an email offering me passes to a blogger preview screening of the new One Direction movie THIS IS US, I jumped at the chance. My two 9 year-old daughters are Directioners – we saw them live in concert this summer – and I knew they’d be excited to see the movie.

But what I didn’t expect was how much *I* would like the movie.

If you haven’t heard of One Direction (is that possible?), they are a band made up of five guys from England who each tried out separately for the U.K. version of The X Factor in 2010. Simon Cowell plucked each boy from the ranks of rejected contestants, and decided that they should form a band. The band went on to place third in the reality competition that season, but its phenomenal success came afterwards, when scores of fans of One Direction took to social media and pushed the group into stardom.

The documentary THIS IS US is directed by filmmaker Morgan Spurlock (of SUPERSIZE ME fame) and covers the band’s history and behind-the-scenes footage of their most recent world tour. I thought it was an excellent movie. Here’s why:

  • The five guys in the band are totally likeable.
  • The band’s camaraderie is a big theme – these guys like each other a lot, and there don’t seem to be any ego issues among them.
  • The movie features a lot of interviews with Directioners, who say that the band “makes them feel good about themselves” and “makes them smile” and “makes them think that the world is good”. (AWWW!) A lot of their songs are about having (often unrequited) crushes on girls, girls being beautiful just the way they are, and enjoying life – all healthy messaging for pre-teens.
  • The bandmates genuinely appreciate their fans, saying over and over that they give all of the credit for their success to the millions of fans who have supported them. They have fun with their fans and surprise them andinteract with them on social media, and never look down on them or resent the chaos that ensues wherever they go.
  • The guys in the band also seem genuinely appreciative of and thankful for the amazing opportunities they’ve been given, from touring the world and meeting celebrities to playing in famed rock venues and being able to do things like buy houses for their families. Each of the five guys comes from modest, working-class roots, and their lives have been completely transformed by the success of the band. The movie features footage of a few of them going back to their old workplaces – a Toys ‘R Us, a bakery – and reflecting on the turns their lives have taken.
  • Other touching moments: the boys’ parents talking about how much they miss their sons, and how proud they are of their success.
  • The 3-D aspect of the movie was fun, especially with the concert footage.

In all, it was a totally enjoyable night. My daughters loved the movie, which is rated PG for mild language. It’s sweet without being cloying, and funny without being offensive. I walked out with a big smile on my face and was really glad I had the chance to see it.

If you have a Directioner in your life who wants to see THIS IS US (or if you’re thinking of seeing it yourself), definitely go. You won’t regret it at all. And if you (ahem) bring a book with you, thinking you’ll want to read it while your kids are watching the movie, I promise you won’t touch it.

Here is a photo of my daughters before the movie started with their 3D glasses on:

thisisus

 

FROM THE MIXED-UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER by E.L. Konigsburg


My daughters and I are in a Mother-Daughter Book Club, and our final book of the year was From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg. It came out in 1967 and I vaguely remembered reading this book as a child – “the one about the kids who run away and live in the Met” – but that’s pretty much all I could recall. So I was excited to re-read it to see if it stands up in 2013.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the book, it is about Claudia and Jamie Kinkaid, siblings from the ‘burbs who decide to run away from home and hide out in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Feeling underappreciated at home, Claudia was searching for a little excitement, and she chose to bring Jamie with her because he had some available cash due to cheating at the card game War. They took a train into the city (then walked to the museum to save money), where their adventures began.

Claudia and Jamie learned to survive in the museum by sleeping at night on a royal bed, bathing in a fountain in the museum restaurant, hiding from guards, and blending into school trips to learn more about the museum’s vast collection. Their interest is piqued when a new statue is unveiled – a small angel believed to have been sculpted by Michaelangelo – and they decide to try to help the museum solve the question of the statue’s authenticity. That quest eventually leads them back home, but along they way they encounter the titular Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, an eccentric heiress who was the previous owner of the statue, and learn some secrets of their own.

I don’t think I really understood this book as a kid, but this time around I thought it was a lot of fun. There are definitely some aspects that feel dated – in this day and age, missing suburban kids would be recognized immediately, and the security in the museum today certainly wouldn’t allow interlopers to move in for a week or two. But the story holds up, and my 9 year-olds enjoyed it a lot. They liked the details about the kids living on their own, and while they found the Michaelangelo storyline a little confusing, they got the overall gist of it.  There is also a fun twist at the end that I didn’t see coming and which we all appreciated. The siblings have a nice relationship, and they are never in any danger while on their adventure.

So, yes, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler holds up, 45 years later (!). I recommend it for kids looking for an adventurous read with a little mystery thrown in.