Finding Someplace by Denise Lewis Patrick

On her thirteenth birthday, Reesie Boone finds herself stranded in the home of her elderly neighbor, Miss Martine, as Hurricane Katrina turns Reesie’s home, New Orleans, and her neighborhood, into a disaster zone. Will Reesie and Miss Martine escape the floods, and will they find Reesie’s family?

I’ve read couple of other middle grade fiction books set in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina:

Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere by Julie T. Lamana and
Zane and the Hurricane by Rodman Philbrick.

Honestly, none of the three stood out or seemed really special. Maybe I’m jaded. Reesie’s story is fine, and it does deal more with the aftermath of of the hurricane and the long process of recovery and finding a “new normal.” Nevertheless, I felt as if I’d read it all before.

However, that doesn’t mean that middle grade readers who are just now wanting to find out about Katrina and its effects in the lives of the people of NOLA would be as dulled to the subject as I am. Any of these three would do the job adequately, even if none of the three is what I would call memorable.

Maybe reading this nonfiction book about Memorial Medical Center and the events that happened there during Katrina was so disturbing that I was spoiled for anything else.

Binny in Secret by Hilary McKay

I said in my review of the first book in British author Hilary McKay’s new series about a girl named Binny and her family that these books were for people who were not averse to quirky and and slightly dysfunctional families. Then, in this next book, Binny in Secret, while Binny and her little brother remain quite endearingly odd, Binny’s mother steps in and becomes involved and responsible. It’s a good thing she does, I suppose, for the fictional Binny’s sake, but it spoils my thesis about Hilary McKay and dysfunctional, uninvolved, or absent parents. Oh, well.

Binny in Secret takes Binny and her little family—Mother, sensible older sister Clem, Binny (age 12), and sweet baby James (age 6)—to the country to live while their house is being repaired. (The roof fell in during a storm.) Benny hates life in the country, hates her new school, and really hates the new neighbors who are also the landlords. Unfortunately, Binny expresses her feelings about all of the above quite freely and gets herself into trouble with not only the neighbors but also just about everyone else.

The book has an anti-gun vibe, which is interesting because I didn’t know guns were an issue “across the pond”, but it’s nothing too propagandistic. And there’s a tiny bit of magical realism or fantasy mixed in with the realistic story about a girl who learns to temper her judgments and accept differences while she saves a wild animal friend from being hunted and killed.

Then, there’s the timeslip or time connection between Binny’s life and the children who lived in the country house back in the early twentieth century. Benny doesn’t ever travel in time. Nor do the other children—Clarry, Peter, and Rupert–travel to the future. But there is a connection as Binny finds relics from the past in the attic of her new home, and she works both literally and imaginatively to put together a story that will reveal the lives of long-ago children and what happened to them as they grew up.

In short, if you like Hilary McKay’s Casson family, you will probably like Binny Cornwallis and her family, too. I can see the Cornwallises and the Cassons becoming friends, marrying each other eventually, and raising little free-spirited Cornwallis-Cassons. Or Casson-Cornwallises.

I’m thankful today for the idiosyncrasies and eccentricities of all of our families, especially mine. Lord, help us to give grace, laugh a lot, and enjoy each other’s peculiar strengths, habits, and even weaknesses.

Fuzzy Mud by Louis Sachar

Fuzzy Mud is a well-written and engaging look at biochemistry, math, bullying, bravery, cowardice, and making moral choices. Those disparate subject areas and themes in the lives of fifth grader Tamaya Dhilwaddi and seventh graders Marshal Walsh and Chad Hillegas form the glue that holds this novel together and make for a satisfying near-apocalypse story for middle grade readers.

It’s the “fuzzy mud” that’s the problem. The self-replicating microorganisms that are supposed to be a new fuel that will revolutionize the energy and fuel businesses may be out of control. And Tamaya, Marshall, and Chad are about to step into —literally—a big mess that makes their small problems with bullying and being bullied look really small.

Louis Sachar, the talented author of the Newbery Award winning Holes, as well as many other favorite middle grade and young adult novels, has written a great book. And it’s short, only 180 pages, a plus for reluctant readers who want a book that doesn’t take them a year to finish reading. The only issue I had with the book was the population scare statistics that are used to show the importance of developing a new, inexpensive biofuel. I have a thing about population alarmists: I don’t believe them. When I was in high school, back in the dark ages of the nineteen seventies, I was told that we were running out fuel and food and every other resource and that if people didn’t quit having so many babies the world was going to DIE OF STARVATION!

I read Paul Erlich’s The Population Bomb. I believed that the world was in crisis, and that children were the enemy.

“Dr. Ehrlich’s opening statement was the verbal equivalent of a punch to the gut: ‘The battle to feed all of humanity is over.’ He later went on to forecast that hundreds of millions would starve to death in the 1970s, that 65 million of them would be Americans, that crowded India was essentially doomed, that odds were fair ‘England will not exist in the year 2000.’ Dr. Ehrlich was so sure of himself that he warned in 1970 that ‘sometime in the next 15 years, the end will come.’ By ‘the end,’ he meant ‘an utter breakdown of the capacity of the planet to support humanity.'” NY Times Special Report

Anyone who is reading this post knows that Ehrlich’s dire predictions didn’t come true. I learned more and read more and went on to have eight children. And I resent reading a new, updated version of the old scare stats in a children’s book. I really think the “overpopulation” propaganda could have been left out of the book.

Otherwise, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play? Well, the book was enjoyable, and I would recommend that you read it for the story and just ignore the over-population junk science.

Ruby on the Outside by Nora Raleigh Baskin

I picked this book up because I really liked Ms. Baskin’s book Anything But Typical, about a boy with autism. Ruby on the Outside sounded as if it had a good premise: “Eleven year old Ruby Danes is about to start middle school, yet no one in her life, other than her aunt, knows her deepest, darkest secret—her mother is in prison.” (inside cover blurb)

But, big but, the story itself is rather slight. Lots of emotions are packed into the book’s 163 pages, but not much actually happens. Ruby goes to visit her mom at the prison. Ruby remembers visiting her mom at the prison. Ruby makes a new friend, Margalit. Ruby is afraid Margalit will find out that Ruby’s mom is in prison. Ruby and Margalit write a story and draw pictures together.

If that had been the only problem with the book, I might have just given it an “E” for effort and gone on to the next book. But I’m about to go on a campaign, a picky little “Bring Back the Copyeditors” campaign. This book is the third one I’ve read in the past month, all published by major publishers for Pete’s sake, with multiple misprints and errors. If I were Ms. Baskin, I’d be angry and upset. Isn’t it the publisher’s responsibility to hire a decent copyeditor and make sure the book goes to press as error-free as possible? I stumbled over several places in this novel where a word had obviously been omitted or repeated erroneously. These are common mistakes that will be found in any manuscript, but the novel should never, never be published with the mistakes and typos uncorrected. Are the copyeditors on strike? Is is considered sufficient these days just to spell check a manuscript with the computer and then publish it?

If someone in publishing can tell me why I am finding so many children’s books lately with multiple printing errors, I would appreciate being educated. Can the publishers not afford to hire copyeditors? In the meantime, if you are a children’s author, I would suggest that you hire your own copyeditor before even a major publisher publishes your book. It’s a shame, but someone needs to do the job.

A Handful of Stars by Cynthia Lord

I thought it was another dog book, and I’m not much of a dog book fan. But it was Cynthia Lord, whose book Rules is a wonderful story of a girl and her autistic brother, so I thought I’d give a try. It’s only 184 pages of large bold print with double spacing that will draw in reluctant and timid readers.

And, yes, the story does feature a girl and her blind dog, Lily (aka Tigerlily) and Lucky. But it’s really about the friendship that develops between Lily and the Hispanic migrant girl, Salma, who saves Lucky’s life when he runs away through the blueberry filed where Salma is raking blueberries. The story takes place in Maine, and there’s a lot of information about blueberries in the book, too. Lily is a fully developed character with a cautious personality, suspicious of change. And Salma is an artist, bold and full of ideas, but she’s still human enough and young enough to get scared when she thinks she’s gotten herself in too deep by entering the local Downeast Blueberry Queen contest.

Perfect for third and fourth graders, A Handful of Stars stands out among all the series books and fantasy tomes and problem novels as a simple story about a dog, and friendship, and figuring out how to allow some things to change while holding on to what’s good about life as it is. There are problems, of course, as Lily feels she is losing her old friend, Hannah, even as she’s not sure she understands her new friend, Salma. And it’s hard to earn enough money to pay for the operation that Lily wants to restore Lucky’s sight. But everything comes out right in the end, and Lily grows a little and so do Salma and even Hannah.

Highly recommended, and I would like to see a book like this one win the Newbery award. Books for younger readers have been slighted and overlooked in the Newbery Award ever since Sarah Plain and Tall (1986) and The Whipping Boy (1987), although a few have won Newbery Honors.

This Strange Wilderness by Nancy Plain

This Strange Wilderness: The Life and Art of John James Audubon by Nancy Plain.

I wanted to compare this biography to a few others that I would like to have in my library, but the truth is that I don’t have them. And my public library doesn’t have the following biographies of artist and ornithologist John James Audubon for children/young adults either:

Audubon by Constance Rourke. Harcourt, 1936. This book won a Newbery honor in 1937, the same year that Roller Skates by Ruth Sawyer won the Newbery Award. Ms. Rourke wrote another biography, Davy Crockett, that won a Newbery Honor in 1935. I do have the latter book in my library, and it is quite engaging and readable.

John James Audubon by Margaret and John Kieran. This biography is No. 48 in the Landmark series of history books, and I would very much like to have a copy of it. John Kieran was a sportswriter, radio personality, and an avid bird watcher. He wrote this biography of Audubon with his wife, Margaret, also a journalist and an editor for the Boston Globe newspaper.

My public library does have the following books about Audubon for children:

The Boy Who Drew Birds: A Story of John James Audubon (Outstanding Science Trade Books for Students K-12) by Jacqueline Davies and Melissa Sweet. HMH, 2004. I like Melissa Sweet, but I haven’t seen this particular book.

Audubon: Painter of Birds in the Wild Frontier by Jennifer Armstrong and Jos. A. Smith. Abrams, 2003. A picture book biography. It looks very nice with full color illustrations, some of them copied from Audubon’s paintings.

Into the Woods: John James Audubon Lives His Dream by Robert Burleigh. Another picture book that focuses on Audubon’s failure as a shop-keeper and his decision to become an artist and wilderness explorer.

So, with all those options, why do we need another biography of john James Audubon for children or young adults?

Well, the first two titles are great and most likely well-written, but they were published quite a few years back, and they probably don’t have many examples of the art for which Mr. Audubon was most famous. This Strange Wilderness has many, many full color images of Audubon’s birds and other paintings, along with text that illuminates the man and his work.

On the other hand, the three picture books that are readily available are just that, picture books, not really adequate for older readers in middle school and high school who want to find out more about John James Audubon and his legacy. At 90 pages with lots of full page and half page illustrations, this bio is anything but exhaustive; however, it’s much more informative than the picture books referenced above. Any budding ornithologist would enjoy This Strange Wilderness along with Gary Schmidt’s Okay for Now, a fiction title in which Audubon’s masterpiece, The Birds of America, plays a large role. Then, of course, a real bird-lover would need his or her very own copy of The Birds of America, available from Amazon in small (about $10.00), medium (about $30.00) and large sizes (over $100.00). Or the most famous of the paintings are reproduced in Ms. Plain’s book, so most readers might be content with it.

This Strange Wilderness is only available as a paperback or an ebook, but the paperback is a quality book, with a heavy cover and bound in signatures so that the pages fold back easily to allow one to see the full reproductions of the paintings.

Poetry: Cybils Suggestons

Do you need a suggestion for a book to nominate for the Cybils in the category of Poetry? Nominations are open through October 15th, and anyone can nominate a book, as long as the book was published between October 15, 2014 and October 15, 2015. And here’s link to the nomination form. The Poetry category, by the way, includes verse novels this year, a change which I applaud.

The following books are a few titles that haven’t been nominated yet and that I’ve read or heard good things about:

Sing a Season Song by Jane Yolen. Creative Editions, September 2015.

Amazing Places by Lee Bennett Hopkins. Lee & Low, October 1, 2015. NOMINATED

A Pirate’s Mother Goose by Nancy Sanders. Albert Whitman, September 2015.

Poems About Animals by Brian Moses. Wayland Ltd, July 2015.

Poems About the Seaside by Brian Moses. Wayland Ltd. July 2015.

So You Want to Be a Wizard? by Wes Magee. Caboodle, October 1, 2015.

Blue Birds by Caroline Starr Rose. G.P. Putnam’s Books for Young Readers, March 2015. NOMINATED

A Heart Like Ringo Starr by Linda Oatman High. Saddleback, March 2105.

Like Water on Stone by Dana Walrath. Delacourte, November 2014.

Paper Hearts by Meg Wiviott. Margaret K. McElderry, September 2015.

Random Body Parts by Leslie Bulion. Peachtree, March 2015. NOMINATED

My Seneca Village by Marilyn Nelson. namelos, October 1, 2015. NOMINATED

Over the Hills and Far Away: A Treasury of Nursery Rhymes by Elizabeth Hammill. Candlewick, March 2015. NOMINATED

Cyber Attack by Martin Gitlin and Margaret J. Goldstein

Well, I certainly know a lot more about cyber crime and computer security and hacking than I did before I read this young adult nonfiction treatment of the history and current state of cyber attacks on the information we keep in our computer networks, thumb drives, hard drives, cell phones and and other internet connected devices. I also don’t feel nearly as safe as I did before I read about worms and viruses and bots and phishing and ransomware and Blackshades and lots of other nasty cyber-stuff.

Cyber Attack provides students and computer innocents (like me) with a basic introduction to the state of the internet, security-wise. Anyone with an interest in the subjects of cyber crime and cyber warfare is going to want to go deeper, and a bibliography in the back of the book provides readers with several avenues for exploration. I was freaked out enough by the information in the 72 pages of this little book to want to go off-grid for the duration.

Did you know that the computer software called Blackshades, which can take over the camera in your personal computer and take pictures of you in your own home, is a reality, not a myth? According to the author, “one Dutch teenager used his copy of Blackshades to take secret pictures of women and girls on about two thousand computers.”

Did you know that the U.S. has been involved in a secretive cyber war with Iran, trying to shut down or damage their nuclear facilities and capabilities, since 2008? And it’s probably still going on.

Did you know that the Russian and Chinese governments are actively engaged in cyber spying and attacks on U.S. companies and government computer networks, trying to get information about our economic secrets as well as military and other governmental information? And they’ve been quite successful in stealing quite a bit of information that has been of use in business negotiations and could be useful in the future if we ever do have a military confrontation with either country.

Did you know that the entire nation of Estonia–government services, banks, media outlets and other computer networks—came under cyber attack in 2007 from hackers located inside Russia? And even when the hackers were identified, Russia refused to arrest them or do anything to restrain or punish them.

Maybe you knew a lot of this stuff and more that’s in the book, but I didn’t. Again, Mr. Gitlin’s little book is a good introduction to the subject of cyber attacks. And how can a simple little old woman keep her herself and her information secure? Well, says the book, “You could cancel your Internet service, ditch your cell phone, close your bank account, throw away your debit card, and turn off your electricity. You could quit school and never take a job, vote in an election, get a driver’s license, or fly on an airplane. Of course, such a solution is completely unrealistic.”

Of course, the information in this book, published in 2015, is already incomplete and out-dated, to some extent. There’s a publisher’s note in the front of the book:

“This book is as current as possible at the time of publication. However events change rapidly and hacks, big and small, occur on a daily basis. To stay abreast of the latest developments related to hacking, check the New York Times and other major national newspapers for current, up-to-date information.”

Here are a couple of hacking-related news items that were not included in the book because they just happened in 2015:

Hillary Clinton, our Secretary of State, kept her emails on a privateserver located in some part of her house. (Hackers’ goldmine!) She says her information was secure, but no one really knows. “Was her server hacked? We don’t know. Private servers are considered more difficult to protect, in general, than the ones big e-mail hosts like Google use.” (Everything we know about the Hillary Clinton emails, September 15, 2015)

A hackers’ group calling themselves The Impact Team stole and published the private information for millions of users of the website Ashley Madison, a portal for people (mostly men) who wanted to commit adultery. Reporters and cyber security insiders keep saying that if it could happen to Ashley Madison, it could happen to any company on the web. So just know that your financial and personal information is not really safe anywhere on the web.

And the cyber attacks go on.

Lost in the Sun by Lisa Graff

Lost in the Sun reminded me of one of my favorite middle grade fiction authors, Gary Schmidt and his book, Okay for Now, and that’s high praise because I loved Okay for Now. A few of the plot developments seemed a little too coincidental or out of the ordinary to be believed, but I was willing to suspend disbelief because I really cared about the characters and wanted to see them come to some kind of resolution, or even victory.

Trent Zimmerman is the middle son of a divorced mom and dad. He lives with his mom and his two brothers, Aaron and Doug, and he visits his dad and stepmom when he must. However, Trent is convinced that everyone, especially his dad, hates him and sees him as a “screw-up” because of something that happened about six months before the opening of the story. That’s when Trent killed his fellow hockey-player, Jared, with a hockey puck to the chest. Although the hit was unintentional and no one knew that Jared had a heart condition that combined with the hockey puck to send him into cardiac arrest, Trent knows that it’s still his fault that Jared is dead. And everyone else knows it, too.

So, we have Trent, a lost kid with anger issues, and then in chapter two we meet Fallon Little, the girl with the scar. Fallon helps to diffuse a situation with Trent and some bullies, and then, she refuses to go away, doing everything within her power to become Trent’s friend. Only Trent is so self-centered and lost in his anger and regret that he barely has time or energy for friendship. And Fallon has issues of her own. Whenever people ask how she got the scar that traverses her face from her left eyebrow down to the right corner of her mouth, she tells a different story. Maybe she was mauled by a a grizzly bear. Or slapped by a manatee. Or maybe she has amnesia and can’t remember how she got the scar.

The book gives attentive readers lots of answers about Trent and how he got to be so frightened and angry and what he needs to do to recover and move on with his life, but Fallon remains a mystery to some extent. Why does she wear such odd clothing combinations? Why does she want to be friends with Trent? Why is her father so silent and unapproachable? How did she really get that scar? None of these questions is really answered satisfactorily, although I could make a guess at some of the answers. Maybe that’s because the story is told in first person from Trent’s point of view, and Trent isn’t the most perceptive or pathetic character on the block. In fact, as the story begins and Trent starts sixth grade (middle school), he’s a smart aleck who picks fights and hates his dad, his teachers, his classmates, and himself.

Some good questions to explore with middle grade readers of Lost in the Sun:

Why does Trent hate everybody? Why does he believe they all hate him?

Who’s right, Trent’s dad who says “sometimes you only get one chance in life” or Trent’s mom who tells him that she doesn’t believe you only ever get just one chance?

Why do you think Fallon wants to be friends with Trent? What does Fallon need from a friend? Can Trent be the kind of friend that Fallon wants him to be?

How do you find the self control to keep your anger from making you do something violent or stupid? How does Trent begin to control himself?

How does Trent try to get other people to like him or trust him? What are some other ways to make up for a past mistake or wrongdoing?

Are there any hints in the story about how Fallon got the scar? How do you think Fallon got her scar?

I won’t give away the ending, but I rather liked it. And I’m not usually a fan of this particular type of conclusion.

Puritan Adventure by Lois Lenski

Lois Lenski was a prolific children’s writer who wrote “a collection of regional novels about children across the United States” and a number of historical novels about children of different periods of American history. In Puritan Adventure, Aunt Charity comes to a fictional colony in New England to live with her sister’s family, and she brings joy and kindness into the oppressive atmosphere of the Puritan colony, and especially to the colony’s children. Aunt Charity, to the dismay of the authorities in the colony, teaches the children to celebrate Christmas and Shrove Tuesday and May Day—with a maypole! Horrors!

Puritan Adventure gives the Puritans of seventeenth century New England a bad rap. The Puritans did outlaw the celebration of certain feasts, particularly Christmas because it was associated with drunkenness, and they did by necessity work hard and expect everyone in the household to work together for the sake of survival. However, the Puritans and other religious pilgrims who came to America in the seventeenth century were not quite the dour, frightened, suppressed people that Lenski’s book makes them out to be. They celebrated their own holidays and family times. They enjoyed their Sabbath rest and worship each Sunday. Puritan Richard Baxter wrote:

“All Christ’s ways of mercy tend to, and end in the saints’ joys. He wept, suffered, sorrowed that they might rejoice; He sendeth the Spirit to be their comforter; He multiplieth promises, he discovers their future happiness, that their joy may be full; He aboundeth to them in mercies of all sorts; He maketh them lie down in green pastures, He leadeth them by the still waters, yea, He openeth to them the fountain of living waters, that their joy may be full.”

Thomas Watson, another Puritan writer, said simply: “The more we enjoy of God, the more we are ravished with delight.”

So, Aunt Charity, with her idealization of Old England and its celebrations would likely have been looked upon as an anomaly in a Puritan colony, but not necessarily hounded and bought before the magistrate as she was in the book. And drunken celebrations would have been discouraged, but Aunt Charity’s child-centered Christmas and Shrove Tuesday celebrations would most likely have been looked upon as odd, but harmless. Neither Old England nor New England had a very child-centered culture. Children were little adults, given as much responsibility as they could possibly handle and sometimes more.

I don’t know what to recommend about Puritan Adventure. I will keep it in my library. Ms. Lenski was a great writer of children’s books, and she tells a good story in her novel of Puritan New England. However, that good story is based on a skewed idea of the Puritans’ joylessness. Maybe it would be a good book to read with children and to discuss. One could discuss the dangers of legalism and also the dangers of lawlessness, as exemplified by Patty, the servant girl. Readers could also talk about the misunderstanding that is prevalent today in regard to the difference between temporal pleasures and eternal joy. We should teach the children (and the adults) to choose joy every time—and to not be afraid of a little innocent pleasure.