Monday, April 23, 2012

Hannah West in the Center of the Universe

First, two book related pieces of business- what are your kids doing for Poem in your Pocket day? The national one is April 26-  but their school did it a couple weeks ago. Claire Helen took an Emily Dickinson poem- "A Soft Sea Washed around the House" for those in the know. Simon took several original compositions derived from Shel Silverstein poems. Mostly along the theme of being, uh, digested by a dragon. They loved it though, and as a tip, wore clothes with lots of pockets so they could write new ones throughout the day and swap with their friends. Great fun.

Also, dress as your favorite book character day is coming up in May- 17 at our school- what are you all thinking? Claire Helen is thinking Nancy Drew:

and Simon wants to be Simon from the Spiderwick Chronicle series:

I think if we can find something to sub in for the eyepiece we should  be good, though it's not the most recognizable character in the world. The pressure is on, though, because Claire Helen was a pretty spot on Harriet the Spy last year:

Perhaps it is not clear that we take our book related holidays quite seriously around here. Ahem.

Onto a review.

Hannah West in the Center of the Universe, by Linda Johns


Hannah West—twelve-year-old adopted Chinese daughter of Maggie West and aspiring detective—is back on the scene in a third original adventure. Someone is kidnapping canines, and it’s got the dog-crazy denizens of funky Fremont—where Hannah and her mom have landed their latest house-sitting gig—all riled up. At first, Hannah’s in heaven in dog-filled Fremont, but when her dog-walking business marks her as a suspect in the dognappings, she knows that this is one case that she’s got to get to the bottom of—for her own sake, as well as for the sake of her canine companions!

Reading levels- unlevelled, around 800 lexile.

Today I'm reviewing one of a series of marvelous, marvelous books before they go out of print. Well, at least they are marvelous to one 7 year old girl in residence. Hannah West is a 12 year old aspiring living in Seattle with her mother. They house sit and so find their way through various character filled neighborhoods in Seattle- this one, obviously, Fremont- and she solves mysteries (often dog related) through cleverness and bravery. 

This is not an especially difficult or narrative-horizon-broadening book. It's not hard to tell, fairly early on, who the bad guys are. I am reviewing it today because Hannah is such a great character for an introverted bookish sort of child who doesn't always feel that they fit in. She approaches adults respectfully but boldly, cares for animals, is funny, and uses her brain to solve the mysteries. Claire Helen loves this series, and returns to it often.

We found ourselves with some extra time over spring break, and even took a little tour of some of the Fremont spots Hannah frequents. Norm's, Markettime Grocery, the troll, and Theo's chocolate factory, which we feel sure she would have frequented, even if it wasn't in the book. Darnitall, I only took pictures at Norms, the dog-friendly dive-y diner, but I think you can tell we had a good time. This is Betty's confused-but-happy face:

Saturday, April 07, 2012

The Witch of Blackbird Pond and Masterpiece

Cough cough.

Remember that bit about having reviews up last weekend?

That was before we became a house of ill-repute. Actual illness, not just reputed. I find illness to be one of the very few areas where it actually is harder and not more fun to have three children instead of the standard issue two. With three, the illnesses seem to last and last, and when I get it, instead of collapsing to my bed after the kid maelstrom, it's always during at least one of their sick days. Taking care of a sick child while you yourself are sick is such a defeating feeling. That feeling definitely does not lend itself to writing zippy blog posts. But I'm back! And taking a break from the egg factory right now:

This week, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, by Elizabeth George Speare for Claire Helen types, and Masterpiece by Elise Broach for Simon types.

The Witch of Blackbird Pond, by Elizabeth George Speare

Lexile level: 850
Fountas and Pinnel: W

The blurb:

Kit Tyler is marked by suspicion and disapproval from the moment she arrives on the unfamiliar shores of colonial Connecticut in 1867. Alone and desperate, she has been forced to leave her beloved home on the island of Barbados and join a family she has never met. Torn between her quest for belonging and her desire to be true to herself, Kit struggles to survive in a hostile place. Just when it seems she must give up, she finds a kindred spirit. But Kit’s friendship with Hannah Tupper, believed by the colonists to be a witch, proves more taboo than she could have imagined and ultimately forces Kit to choose between her heart and her duty.
Elizabeth George Speare’s Newbery Award–winning novel portrays a heroine whom readers will admire for her unwavering sense of truth as well as her infinite capacity to love.

Claire Helen has a goal of reading all the Newbery Medal books, which I and a lot of my contemporaries did as children. You may or may not be aware that several decades have passed in the interim (horrors), and with each passing year there is another Newbery Medal, and so the stack is quite a bit higher than when I was young. So I am trying to help her out, and we have listened to a couple in the car, this one included. 

I'm reviewing it now because it is very perfect for a particular sort of personality. There is a strong heroine (Kit), who is, as in 90% of children's literature, abandoned/orphaned at the start of the action. She leaves her childhood home of Barbados in search of her aunt and uncle in 19th century, puritan Connecticut. Most of the book is her struggle to fit in the small, judgmental community, and what happens when she follows her heart and is kind to another outcast. The insights into Kit's mind are lovely, and her cousins, Judith and Mercy, are very well drawn. 

I didn't really appreciate how much of the book was focused on who got which romantic pairing, even if it might have been appropriate for the period. I wish the male characters had been better developed, though that, too, might have been a function of the structure- it's told first person from Kit's point of view. All in all, certainly a worthwhile read. Getting to know Kit was nothing but a pleasure, and Claire Helen really really loved it. I'd recommend it. Just be aware that romance is in the air, so you are prepared for your less emotionally mature readers.

Masterpiece, by Elise Broach

Lexile level: 700
Fountas and Pinnell: U

And the blurb

Marvin lives with his family under the kitchen sink in the Pompadays’ apartment. He is very much a beetle. James Pompaday lives with his family in New York City. He is very much an eleven-year-old boy. After James gets a pen-and-ink set for his birthday, Marvin surprises him by creating an elaborate miniature drawing. James gets all the credit for the picture and before these unlikely friends know it they are caught up in a staged art heist at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that could help recover a famous drawing by Albrecht Dürer. But James can’t go through with the plan without Marvin’s help. And that’s where things get really complicated (and interesting!). This fast-paced mystery will have young readers on the edge of their seats as they root for boy and beetle.

In Shakespeare’s Secret Elise Broach showed her keen ability to weave storytelling with history and suspense, and Masterpiece is yet another example of her talent. This time around it’s an irresistible miniature world, fascinating art history, all wrapped up in a special friendship— something for everyone to enjoy.

This book is great! I love the way Broach talks about Marvin's total dependence on James contrasted with the completeness of his little beetle self. There's nothing in here that is too difficult for young readers. Marvin is afraid of being squashed a few times(but I don't think you can write a book about a beetle without the squashing threat). There is art stolen, a betrayal, and James definitely has a hard time when he is put on the spot by the adults who hope he can draw as well as Durer, when really it is Marvin with the talent. 

But mostly the book just strikes a good balance interesting things happen and not too hard for little brains. The blurb is right- you root for the boy and the beetle naturally. Simon wished for a little more action at times, but it's possible that Simon wishes for too much action.