Saturday, 25 March 2017

The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill (Intermediate fiction)

The Girl Who Drank the Moon
By Kelly Barnhill
Algonquin Young Readers
ISBN 9781616205676

The people of the Protectorate live sad lives. Each year the elders take the youngest child to be sacrificed to the witch of the forest, believing that if they don't do this dreadful things will befall them.

Xan is a witch, but not a bad one. She lives in the forest and each year takes the abandoned baby, and finds it a good home in the Free Cities, where they go on to live happy lives. 

When the story commences a baby is taken, but not without the mother becoming quite mad with grief at losing her child, resulting in her being kept in the tower where the town's nuns, also their elite fighting force, live, led by Sister Ignatia, who is definitely not what she appears to be. 

When Xan takes the baby through the forest, instead of feeding her starlight, as she usually does, she accidentally gives her moonlight, a far more potent substance which causes the child to become 'enmagicked'. Xan names her Luna and keeps her as her own grandchild. When it becomes obvious her magic is completely out of control she casts a spell that prevents Luna remembering anything about magic, until she turns 13.

As this time approaches Xan becomes weaker and knows death is near but must go and fetch the next baby. In the meantime the mad mother, who seems to have a deal of magic herself, escapes and heads to the forest determined to find her child. A carpenter from the town also heads that way, determined to kill the witch, as it is his own child who will be sacrificed next. 

Luna is discovering her magic and the land itself is in turmoil as a volcano rumbles and threatens destruction. Most dangerous is the sorrow-eater who intends to destroy them all.

A marvellously magical modern fairy tale, at once full of traditional features, including a very chatty tiny dragon, but also brilliantly original ideas - I loved the paper magic - folded birds which come to life and are both beautiful and with the power to scar and destroy.

This novel won the 2017 Newbery Medal, which had other fine contenders such as Lauren Wolk's Wolf Hollow, another favourite read this year.


NY Times Review
School Library Journal discussion between Kelly Barnhill and Adam Gidwitz, author of one of the Newbery Honor books - The Inquisitor's Tale

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Ghost by Jason Reynolds [Intermediate fiction]

By Jason Reynolds
Simon & Schuster, 2016
  • ISBN 9781481450157

    • Castle Cranshaw has a tough life. His mother works long hours at the hospital to make ends meet, and they live in a rough part of town. His father is absent because he's in jail after attempting to shoot Castle and his mother. 

    • On his way home from school one day he spots some kids running races. He sits and watches, particularly paying attention to a boy in fancy running clothes who seems to be the fastest of the bunch. He thinks he's a pretty fast runner himself so decides to race outside the track - in his jeans and rough shoes, and manages to win. The coach convinces Castle - who tells Coach his name is Ghost - that he should join their team. Takes Ghost home in his taxi and talks the mother into giving permission, thus committing Ghost to training after school every day - as long as he stays out of trouble and gets his school work done, or he'll be out.

    • Staying out of trouble is hard for Ghost, who usually reacts violently to people giving him a hard time. When he lands in trouble the very next day he gets in trouble he gets the school to call his 'uncle' - the coach, to come and bail him out. Ghost makes some really bad decisions, and you can see why when you follow his way of thinking. But as the story evolves you see him slowly learning new ways, learning to keep his cool sometimes.

    • The other kids on the team are also filled out as the story progresses, providing diversity not just ethnically, but economically, and each with their own challenges. There are some personality clashes but Coach, and his deputy, keep them all working so hard they slowly become a team, rather than competitors. Coach is my favourite character, with his equal measures of understanding and discipline. We (and Ghost) understand him a lot better when he finally tells his own story, not to different from Ghost's. The 

    • Athletics is a sport that's not often featured in fiction. I've been reading a lot of basketball novels, and some soccer, but I like how the athletics is both powerfully individual, but also a team.

      The writing is rich and real, great characters who ring true and have you on their side, even when they do dumb stuff. Ghost was short-listed for the National Book Awards and he's had a clutch of awards for other books including the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award for new talent for When I Was the Greatest, and Kirkus Award for As Brave As You, which was also a Times Book of the Year. Ghost is first in a series and I'm very much looking forward to reading the next. I'll be ordering in a bunch of Reynolds' books for my Intermediate school library too.

    Jason Reynolds website can be found here.

    Saturday, 11 March 2017

    This is Not a Picture Book by Sergio Ruzzier (Picture Book)

    This is Not a Picture Book
    By Sergio Ruzzier
    Chronicle Books, 2016
    ISBN 9781452129075

    What a clever piece of metafiction this little gem is, with surprise layers only discovered after reading the book, then investigating it thoroughly, turning it over, finally understanding how it works. But this understanding is not necessary for enjoyment of it, with it scute little duckling and bug characters celebrating books.

    I mean, just look at that front cover, grey text under the title and cover illustration, that doesn't make sense if you just look at it like this, you don't realise until it's been read front to back that the story inside the book, is being told here on the cover.

    Open those covers and you see the front end-papers, also full of lines of grey text - here's a sample:
    "Rsdwo ear os cfuidiftl." Eehtr ewer so myan sordw he idnd't knwo the gimanen fo, tle anoel ohw to crenoopun mhet
    We'll come back to this later.

    Rules are broken, we have two double-page spreads of story before we get to the title page - Duckling finds a book, but there are only words in it, something he's never come across before, then the title "This is not a picture book!"
    Bug arrives a few pages later and asks if Duckling can read it, Duckling isn't sure - Duckling and Bug stand in white space but there's a log across a chasm to a coloured world with odd looking things in it - the perfect visual depiction of the learning-to-read experience. it all looks foreign until you gain some understanding. As they move on the pictures reflect their discoveries.
    Words are so difficult
    Wait! I know some of these words...

    "Some are very sad"

    "There are wild words..."

    ... and so on, the wonder of words celebrated with quirky watercolour illustrations rich with emotion, humour and communicate the joy of making pictures in your head when you read an un-illustrated text. Which brings me back to those mysterious end papers, resolved when you get to the back of the book to find the whole story written in text, now in perfectly readable English, and we realise that t the front pages echo the experience of the beginning reader who might only recognise a few of the words.

    So clever and so simple all at once. And then there's my favourite illustration near the end - a gorgeous  bookshelf stretching the width of the duckling's bedroom, loaded with books - picture books and otherwise no doubt.

    Tuesday, 7 March 2017

    Highly Illogical Behaviour by John Corey Whaley (YA fiction)

    Highly Illogical Behaviour
    By John Corey Whaley
    Dial Books | Penguin Random House, 2016
    ISBN 9780525428183

    Solomon Reed is 16 years old, and he is an agoraphobic - he doesn't go outside... ever. His last outdoor experience was outside his junior high school when he just couldn't take it any more, stripped off his clothes and sat in the fountain.

    Lisa Praytor is 17, and intent upon getting into  a particular university to study psychology, but needs to win a scholarship to pay for it. The scholarship requires that she write an essay about her personal experience with mental illness. She saw Solomon in the fountain that day. She knows he hasn't been outside since then. She decides she's going to fix him.

    Solomon has an excellent family, parents who support him however they can, at least they all get along, though they do wonder if he will ever get on with his life like other child-turned-adult could be expected to do. He also has a terrific grandmother who's inclined to say it as it is. She's a great character in her own right, not just in her support of Sol. She's a real estate agent and not the grandmotherly type at all. When Sol tells her that he misses the water she's in action immediately, organising for a pool to be built in the back yard.

    Then there's Lisa's boyfriend Clark. A wholesome young man who isn't at all interested in having sex with her, though she's very keen and worries that he's not. He loves his home town, being part of a big family, and doesn't understand Lisa's desire to escape. He's not too thrilled when she starts spending a lot of time with Sol, after he surprisingly says she can come and visit him at home. They are instant friends, but it's even better when Clark starts coming over too. He and Sol have a lot in common, including a passion for Star Trek. (Sol and his dad even did up the garage to look like a holodeck, which becomes quite a focal point late in the book.)

    I loved seeing everyone's relationships developing, never quite sure how Sol will react to any changes. We see him make progress, but never enough to be 'normal'. I don't want to reveal any more of the story, just to introduce you to the intriguing cast that I so enjoyed.

    I've always been quite intrigued by people who take an extreme option to save their mental health - like becoming a selective mute (read Annabel Pitcher's YA novel Silence is goldfish), or never going outside like Solomon. What measures do the rest of us take to save our sanity? 

    This YA novel has an empathetic focus on mental health issues, and sexuality, in a fresh genuine manner. From award-winner author John Corey Whaley, who you can read more about here.