Monthly Archives: August 2016

Absolutely Almost

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Overall: 4 out of 5 stars
Albie’s fifth grade year is shaping up to be terrible. He got kicked out of the private school he goes to with his best friend, Erlan, who lives down the hall, and has to go to P.S. 183. Even worse, his new school features a bully, Darren Ackleman, and Erlan is sometimes unavailable to Albie because his family is going to be on TV and Albie’s dad didn’t sign the release form. Also, his parents found him a new babysitter, and math and spelling have always been hard for him.
At one point, Albie’s mom has him tested for dyslexia, and I found myself rooting for him to have it, because that would explain his trouble in school. His dad is very demanding about Albie’s grades and I was hoping that a diagnosis of dyslexia would make him back off. But it wasn’t dyslexia. Maybe Albie  has autism? Nope. Turns out Albie is just not very smart, that’s all, which I found a little disappointing, though it is interesting that this is not an issue book. But as Calista, his babysitter, points out, he is kind and thoughtful and good. Ultimately, that seems to be the point of the book. At one point Albie gets singled out by the bully to be “cool” and he gets caught up in the rules of being cool. He gives his new friend Betsy, who has a stutter, unwanted helpful hints about how to be cool, and they make up when he stops being cool and goes back to sticking up for her. Betsy has a stutter and doesn’t talk much; on Albie’s first day, he stands up for her against Darren. Darren calls him all sorts of names, but none as often as Dummy. Eventually, with the help of his remedial math teacher Mr. Clifton (who has some fantastic math jokes), he learns to take the edge off Darren’s name-calling and it doesn’t bother him much anymore. Calista also lets Albie continue to read Captain Underpants, even though his mom thinks those books are for babies and wants him to read Johnny Tremain. His teacher also catches on and lets him read whatever he wants too, which made me want to cheer out loud. But I wished that someone would read TO Albie. Oh well, can’t have everything.
On the diversity front, just to name a few things in case anyone is looking for these types of diverse characters / families: Albie is half-Korean, half-white. He makes a new friend, Darissa, who has two dads. His friend Erlan is a triplet, and has triplet older sisters, and they are from Kazakhstan.

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Amulet, book 1: The Stonekeeper

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by Kazu Kibuishi
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

Emily and her family move to an old house that’s been in the family for generations. Rumors are that the place is haunted, since Emily’s great-grandfather moved in ages ago and was never seen again. The night they move in, they discover the house’s secret and are sucked into an alternate-reality Earth, with new creatures and characters both good and bad. With the help of an amulet and her ancestor’s assistants, Emily fights to keep her family together.

Solid story and very imaginative. I only had to reread a few sequences twice to fully grasp what was going on. In one sequence, a scene between Emily and her mother echoes one from the beginning of the book in a very touching way. My favorite part is the sound effects, which are very accurate. I often find it hard to follow big action scenes in graphic novels, but this one did a pretty good job – in part, I think, thanks to the sound effects. I’m not sure I’ll read more than this first book, but it’s so popular in my library I felt like I had to! Like most graphic novels, it’s a quick read (took me about an hour) and satisfying, though the adventure continues.

The stakes are clear and high for Emily at each turn: if she loses her mother, she and Nevin are orphans. If she chooses to accept the amulet and her role as Stonekeeper, she can rewind time (and, the implication is, ensure that her father doesn’t die) and find happiness again. Etc. A post on the author’s website announces he’s working on books 8 and 9 as of May 2016, which will close out the series.

4 New Back-to-School Books

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by Boni Ashburn
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

This book so reminded me of a family favorite in my house growing up: The Philharmonic Gets Dressed, by Karla Kuskin. which details the getting ready process for “92 men and 13 women” who play in the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. In Ashburn’s book, a classful of children gets ready in their individual homes and getting to school. Every child has his or her own journey, from waking up, to getting dressed, eating breakfast, feeding pets, getting to the bus stop or walking to school, and tripping on their way into the building to be greeted by their Kindergarten teacher on the first day of school. Nearly everyone will be able to identify with someone in The Class. Just as sweet and fascinating as Kuskin’s book, 30+ years later!

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by Sam Garton
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

I know it’s an Otter book if I’m giggling out loud, and the latest installment is no exception. I was hoping that Otter actually got to go to school, but instead he (she?) dresses up and plays teacher, with old pals Teddy, Giraffe, and Pig as students. My favorite part was when Otter awards himself a bunch of stickers for a job well done.

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by Susan Hood
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

Very cleverly done – the words are “secret mission” style task descriptions, like “report to headquarters” and the pictures show the task as done by Kindergarten agents (in this case, getting back home at the end of the day). Twins are seen as double agents, fingerpainting becomes fingerprinting, etc.

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by Jenna McCarthy
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

Lola sure does know a lot – including how to be a perfectly irritating little sister! She also does know quite a lot of things that will be useful in Kindergarten, like counting and shoe-tying, but then her big sister convinces her that she doesn’t know how to do multiplication or other advanced skills. In the end, though, Mom assures her she’ll be just fine.

Return

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by Aaron Becker
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

I was so excited to see this final installment of the Journey wordless picture book trilogy come across my path, but I was a bit disappointed. I remembered Journey and Quest as being visually breathtaking, but this one felt rushed somehow. Not one of the spreads was arresting and I even went back to the first two books to see if I was remembering them correctly. I was – they’re still as beautiful as ever. But I hadn’t noticed that some of the lines had the same sketchy quality as in Return. I think it’s just more prominent in this one, and for some reason it really stood out to me – possibly because the plot was not as engaging for me, especially because it consists of Dad coming and rescuing our heroine and her friends. Yawn.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

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by Jack Thorne
Overall: 3.5 out of 5 stars

I think just having Harry, Ron, and Hermione in a story that Rowling touched automatically makes it a 3-star book, but this one didn’t get much above that baseline for me. First of all, the format was weird, being a play. Thorne and the third writer, John Tiffany, have theater experience, which makes me doubt my initial reaction that the format was an odd and awkwardly executed choice. It seemed that they were trying to fit narration into stage directions and it felt forced and just off a lot of the time. Also, I know they managed to produce this as a stage play in London, but… how?!?! I was so distracted trying to imagine transfiguring by Polyjuice Potion, time traveling, and so many quick and broad scene changes, that I was often and unpleasantly jolted out of the story.

That being said, it’s a quick read. The act breaks are cliffhangers, and 300 pages of double-spaced text move you right along. Character-wise, Ron acts pretty much exactly the same as he did in the original 7 books, which felt comforting but also I was thinking, “Aren’t you a grownup now?” Harry, Hermione, and Ginny all have slightly changed in believable ways. Draco Malfoy also makes an appearance and has chilled way out and had some introspective moments with Harry that felt out of character, at least for what we’d been given about Draco since we last saw him at age 17. There was some character development on Harry’s part that was interesting, about his parenting hangups, and the similar development of his son, who learns to love himself and accept that he’s not perfect or a leader befitting the great Harry Potter’s son.

SPOILER ALERT: However, there were several plot devices I didn’t care for. The first was that the main character is Harry’s black-sheep middle child, Albus Severus Potter, who gets sorted into Slytherin early in the play.  You go along thinking he’s your guy, he’s the protagonist, and then he and his best friend, Scorpius Malfoy (yup, Draco’s kid) go back in time and change things, making it so that Albus never existed, so Scorpius carries the story for a bit, which was jarring. The conflict and solution are presented early enough on that I knew it wasn’t the full story, and then there was a twist, which was enough. But then there was another twist! And another! It got to feeling like the third Back to the Future movie. Actually the big, final twist I really did like, but I could’ve done without a lot of the other stuff. Some of the plot and character developments are not built up to strongly, though they almost certainly had room for it, especially if they cut out some of the time travel bits. We also get official years for the events in the original 7 books, earlier than the publication dates (the Triwizard Tournament from Goblet of Fire, for example, takes place in 1995, though the book was published in 2000). Harry also get to talk to Dumbledore’s portrait, which raised questions for me about how much of the person is in their portrait after they die. I could probably go on and on about the details of the world, but I’ll leave it there.

A colleague mentioned they’d heard it reads like fan fiction, and ultimately I agree, though it was nice to see Harry and co. again, as grownups, and get to know their kids a bit more. It wasn’t as scary as the books but did have its tense and action-packed moments.