Grades 6-8 Trevor’s used to hardship: his dad is in jail, and his mom relies on him to watch his little brother and sister while she moves from job to job. But when they move to an even shabbier housing project and he starts at a new school, it’s hard to keep his trademark sense of humor. Things seem to be looking up when he hits it off with some guys on the soccer team—even though he’s never played on a formal team, he has always had a natural flair for the game. But these guys are from Buckingham Heights, where wealth is taken for granted, and when they invite him along to a high end soccer store, there’s no way he can tell them that the only cleats he can afford will have to come from a thrift store. As he tries unsuccessfully to convince his mom that he can juggle soccer and homework and babysitting, his one saving grace comes from an unlikely source. Accidentally enrolled in a “gifted” science course, Trevor meets Mr. Ferguson. The teacher’s knowledge of mushrooms and fungi is surpassed only by his skill at sparking curiosity. The scheduling error is soon discovered and Trevor is placed in the “correct” science class—but Mr. Ferguson, recognizing Trevor’s disappointment, encourages him to challenge the rules and submit an application for the gifted program: “If you want something badly enough, you owe it to yourself to try to get it.” In this story about overcoming obstacles, Amato shows a real flair for middle school voices. She does not back away from tough issues: abandoned children, abusive parents, and kids who steal are all part of daily life in Trevor’s housing project. While the “invisible lines” of the title could refer to class and racial barriers, Amato’s subtle sense of humor is at work, and the wordplay is her nod to the theme of connectedness among family and friends—not unlike that found in mycelia in the fungal kingdom. This fresh story is enhanced by notes and drawings from Trevor’s “Kingdom of Fungi Identification Notebook.” It should find a wide audience with its short chapters, snappy dialog, and scientific extras.
From Sept 2006 SLJ: Nancy Werlin’s latest novel tackles the topic of child abuse with grace and insight. Narrated by seventeen-year-old Matt as a letter to his youngest sister Emmy, The Rules of Survival is his effort to come to terms with the vicious treatment they suffered at the hands of Nikki, their beautiful and unpredictable mother. One of Matt’s early memories involves getting up during the night to sneak a cookie back to bed and being caught by his mother. Giggling and yelling “Cookie thief,” she holds a knife to his throat, cutting him just a little bit to teach him not to steal. As much as he fears his mother’s manic highs and lows, his greater concern as he grows older is for the safety of his sisters. He and his sister Callie shield Emmy as much as possible from Nikki’s volatile moods. Compounding the problem are the adults in their lives—their father and their aunt—who recognize Nikki’s instability but find it easier to look the other way. When Nikki’s ex-boyfriend Murdoch befriends the children, they want to believe that a more normal future is possible, but are afraid of being disappointed by an adult yet again. The story’s characters captivate readers from the beginning, and short, terse chapters move the plot along with an intensity that will appeal to seasoned Werlin fans and reluctant readers alike. As with Speak (Laurie Halse Anderson, 1999) and other recent novels that explore difficult issues, teens will empathize with these siblings and the secrets they keep.
(From March 2010 SLJ) The classic underdog story goes canine. Twelve-year-old Kevin Pugh leads a comfortable couch-potato existence. While Howie Pugh recalls the glory of playing for the Chicago Bears and tries to motivate his son to follow in his footsteps, Kevin is content to leave athletic glory to his younger soccer-playing sister and to limit his own football exposure to the video-game variety. All of this changes, though, on the day that Kevin, flipping through channels, tunes in to the Purina Incredible Dog Challenge just in time to see a terrier shatter the agility course record. Cromwell, a dog as sluggish as his owner, is mesmerized, and begins racing around the basement in his own attempt at agility coursing. The dog’s fascination with racing does not fade, and Kevin halfheartedly enrolls Cromwell in a training program. When he attempts to mention it to his father, Howie dismisses dog agility as something less than a real sport. Although they are incredibly clumsy throughout their weeks of agility training, boy and dog manage to pull off a miraculous win in their first competition, and are suddenly qualified for the agility championship at Chicago’s United Center. The days following are anticlimactic: even after the win, Howie is unimpressed with Kevin’s and Cromwell’s efforts; they are not able to come anywhere close to the time they achieved during the Invitational; and Kevin is feeling like more of a loser than ever. In the nick of time—just as Kevin is ready to walk out of the United Center without competing to avoid completely humiliating himself—his father shows up, announces that he has been wrong and that Kevin is a winner no matter what, and inspires Kevin to get out there with Cromwell and leave the more experienced dogs in the dust yet again. In spite of the clichéd plot and caricaturish secondary characters, Behrens writes with an engaging style that will appeal to both reluctant and seasoned readers. He has created a likeable protagonist, and students will relate to Kevin’s self-deprecating humor. As for Cromwell, unrealistic though his newfound passion and talent for agility might be, his perseverance gives anyone with an unrealized dream a nice little glimmer of hope.
Myers’ novel about the Salem Witch Trials brings a time of mass hysteria to life. Drucilla and Gabe, born on the same day, are raised together when Drucilla’s mother dies in childbirth. They share a special bond, and after Gabe’s parents succumb to smallpox, various villagers bring them up as siblings. When they are twelve, their foster family relocates and the two young people must take positions as servants. Widow Mary Putnam offers Gabe a home. Drucilla is thrilled when the Widow’s stepson Thomas offers her a position, but soon realizes that a feud between the two households will keep her and Gabe apart. Thomas’s wife Ann is outwardly beautiful and charming, and Drucilla thinks that rumors of the woman’s maliciousness are unfounded. But the longer Drucilla is in the household, the more Ann’s disturbed personality emerges. Drucilla has been brought in primarily as a companion to Thomas’s and Ann’s daughter, also named Ann, three years Drucilla’s junior. The younger Ann resists Drucilla’s overtures of friendship and shows her own signs of devious behavior. Things come to a head when Ann Senior starts a rumor that forces Reverend Burroughs out of the village. When Reverend Parris and his family move into the parsonage, Drucilla’s mistress is a staunch supporter of the new minister, so young Ann and her friends are regular visitors at the parsonage. They encourage the Reverend’s slave, Tituba, to entertain them with stories of witchcraft and to tell their fortunes. Fearing punishment if the adults discover this ungodly pastime, the girls pretend Tituba has bewitched them. As accusations of witchcraft spread through the village, Drucilla is aghast at how many believe the girls, but she sees how susceptible she herself is to the power of suggestion when she imagines herself being attacked by one of the accused during a trial. Gabe, not realizing that Ann Putnam has threatened Drucilla if she changes her story, sees his friend’s testimony against his neighbor as evidence that she sides with the unscrupulous family. As with Ann Rinaldi’s A Break With Charity: A Story About the Salem Witch Trials (1992), Myers draws heavily from the actual participants in the events. The fictional Drucilla is an engaging protagonist, and her fear of being falsely accused if she speaks out is believable. An afterword listing the more than twenty accused men and women who were hanged on Gallows Hill in 1692 or died by other means rounds out this solid piece of historical fiction.
The old-fashioned cover didn't grab me, but I was hooked from the first paragraph in the book. 11 (almost 12) year old Calpurnia is one of my favorite heroines of all time, and the bond she forms with her grandfather as they explore the world of science in 1899 Texas is a special one, indeed. This is the type of book that you don't want to end. When it does, you close the book and just sit for a minute, savoring the realization that you've just read something very special.
Grades 4-6 Life in Winnie’s small town outside of Galveston, Texas is predictable in 1918—until the residents start feeling the effects of the influenza pandemic that is sweeping the country. Suddenly, healthy adults and children are being struck down in a matter of days, and there is no known cure. Twelve-year-old Winnie feels that she must take matters into her own hands to protect her family: her emotionally frail mother cannot guard Winnie’s two younger sisters, and her grandmother refuses to be distracted from her efforts to be accepted among the social elite of the town. When her friend Nolan decides to break into the general store to obtain some Vicks VapoRub, advertised as a preventative against the flu, Winnie accompanies him, but they are unsuccessful in their attempts. Winnie and her grandmother manage to avoid being infected, but they must nurse the rest of the family, and Winnie loses first her mother, then her best friend, to the illness. Moss attempts to introduce middle-grade students to a period in our history about which little has been written. Her efforts are only partially successful: there is too much going on in this brief novel for the reader to ever really engage with Winnie. Less can be better, but in this case, so little is done to develop the characters that they come across as two-dimensional and unsympathetic. Moss’s end notes about this flu that killed more than 20 million people worldwide are informative, but many readers will not have the patience to make it to the end of the book. An additional purchase.
A beautifully written story told through the eyes of Mattie, a 16 year old who is working at the Glenmore Hotel during the summer of 1906 when hotel guest Grace Brown's drowned body is found. Before her death, Grace had given Mattie a packet of letters and made her promise to burn them. Though Mattie's intentions are good, the opportunity does not present itself, and as she begins to read Grace's letters, it becomes more evident that what was initially thought to be an accidental drowning was in fact murder. The true events of the Brown murder are interwoven with Mattie's own story: expected to care for her younger sisters since their mother died, Mattie must put her own dreams of attending college on hold, even after she is awarded a full scholarship by Barnard College.
Grades 6-9 Historical fiction at its finest. This engaging story alternates between three 15-year-old girls in 1910. Bella and Yetta are both recently-arrived immigrants who work at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. Jane is an upper-class girl who becomes aware of how unfairly women workers are being treated from her college friends. The three girls meet at the Triangle strike, and circumstances eventually result in a close friendship. Readers will be appalled at the working conditions of the early 20th century that Haddix so aptly describes, and will be amazed at the tremendous courage that girls and women showed during the two-month strike of Ladies' Garment Workers. All three of the main characters are involved in the horrific Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911. Twists and turns throughout the story will keep readers captivated till the end.
Young adult/ adult As a fan of both Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, I started reading this book with some trepidation-- when multiple authors are involved, it's a very rare thing that the whole will be greater than the sum of its parts. But this is the exception that proves the rule: both authors shine in this satirical and hysterical look at the final days. These guys know their Bible, and I'm guessing that they even gave God a chuckle.