Sidekicks by Dan Santat

Sidekicks coverHe may be Captain Amazing to the rest of Metro City, but at home he’s Harry, best master ever. Or at least, he would be if he had more time to spend with his adoring pets, Roscoe the dog (who has a super power of his own), Fluffy the hamster, and newcomer Shifty the chameleon. When his peanut allergy puts the aging Captain Amazing out of commission for a few weeks, he announces that he’s decided to recruit and train a new sidekick. And though he’s determined not to select another pet for the job — the last time didn’t end well — Roscoe is equally certain that he can secretly win the role and gain first claim to Harry’s time and attention.

Fluffy does not have a super power, but he’s pretty sure he can fight crime anyway. Shifty volunteers himself as sidekick — after all, families look out for one another — and together the two manage to get themselves into trouble almost immediately. Manny, formerly sidekick to Captain Amazing and currently cat-on-the-street, rescues the pair and takes on the responsibility of training them in their chosen trade.

When a new superhero in town proves an unexpected threat, all four animals have a chance to show their master, and their city, just what they can do.

Santat’s Sidekicks is a winner from start to finish. With solid storytelling, some great behind-the-scenes common sense — I loved Manny’s reasoning behind pulling the fire alarm — and lots of humour, Santat turns superhero conventions to fresh and entertaining ends. The artwork is a big part of the appeal, of course. Shifty is my favourite, but all of the characters are well-executed and full of personality. Recommended for fans of humour and quirky superhero stories.

Read other reviews from School Library Journal and Stacked.

Check out the official trailer:

How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff

How I Live Now CoverDaisy doesn’t exactly get along with her new stepmother. When an expected stepsibling only increases the tension between them, her father decides that a bit of distance would be a good thing, and packs Daisy off to live with her maternal aunt’s family in England. Though Aunt Penn and her four children are strangers to Daisy, they soon feel more like family, and their farm more like home, than anything else ever has. And then there’s cousin Edmond, who feels like something else entirely almost from the beginning.

When the threat of war becomes a real occupation while Aunt Penn is in Oslo trying to champion peace, the five cousins are at first thrilled to be parent-free. It turns out that the farm is needed for the war effort, though, and it isn’t long before the house is filled with soldiers, and the children are separated and billeted with families miles apart. Daisy and nine-year-old Piper are determined to find the others, even if it means setting out alone across an increasingly-violent, occupied English countryside. But while they’ve gathered enough hints to figure out where the boys have been placed, bringing their family back together is going to take far more from both girls than they can possibly guess.

How I Live Now is not a comfortable read. Between Daisy’s passionate romance with her cousin, the tension and violence of the war, and considerable risks involved in Daisy and Piper’s efforts to find the rest of Daisy’s cousins, readers are unlikely to get through this book without questioning both their own beliefs and the shape and path of the society in which they live. The book is also stunning — well structured, artfully populated, and beautifully strange. Recommended for teens open to a thoughtful, if occasionally intense, read.

Read other reviews from Angieville, The Book Smugglers, and The Observer.

Browse a bit of info on this fall’s film adaptation.

Ten: Favourite Rereads

Ingathering by Zenna Henderson
Mum introduced me to Zenna Henderson as soon as I was old enough to be interested, and I gradually collected my own set in my late teens (Henderson published four books of short stories, all of which are rare thrift shop finds now). Ingathering is much easier to get, and combines two of the collections, plus a few extra stories that didn’t appear in the earlier books, so it’s a good place to start. Henderson’s stories, characters, and vocabulary are about as much a part of me as almost anything else I can think of. Discovering someone else who has read them (it’s happened twice, ever, and one of those was via Jo Walton’s Among Others) is rather like discovering an unknown relative — an unexpected someone in the world who shares important bits of my own history.

Devil on My Back and The Dreamcatcher by Monica Hughes
Choosing two is sort of cheating (though there will be plenty more of that before I’m done, so why fret?), but they’re sort of two halves of a whole, and these, more than any of the others, are remembered not only as stories, but as experiences. Devil on My Back is about learning to see and accept uncomfortable truths about a world you’ve taken for granted; The Dreamcatcher is about finding a legitimate place in a community that seems at first not to fit you at all. Both involve high stakes commitments from teenagers to use their knowledge and gifts to make real changes in their world. There’s also a trek on foot through the mountains that I mean to experience for myself at least once in my life. Continue reading

The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis

Breadwinner coverWhen the Taliban took over and barred all girls from school, Parvana was glad of the holiday. But it’s getting a bit tiresome to be the only one in the family able to go outside to collect water, and with her mother unable to work, sifting through the family’s belongings for things they can sell in the market has become a regular chore. There’s not much left that can be spared.

When Parvana’s father is arrested — and Parvana and her mother’s attempt to have him released fails — the only means of feeding the family is for Parvana to dress like a boy and take her father’s place in the market. As she and another girl-in-disguise, former classmate Shauzia, work to support their families, other women in the periphery of the story struggle in their own ways to survive, to grow, and to challenge the limitations the Taliban has placed on them.

The Breadwinner is a beautiful, difficult story that offers richly-realised glimpses of life in Afghanistan under the Taliban. While the details of Parvana’s life — such as the repeated loss of “home” due to wartime destruction, and the customers eager to purchase Parvana and her father’s reading and writing skills — are valuable on their own, what I appreciated most was Ellis’s ability to present a variety of strong, unique female characters that were believable in their own context. Parvana’s mother, Fatana, who braves the Taliban and walks hours on blistered, bloody feet to try to retrieve her husband from jail. Parvana’s sister, Nooria, who desperately wants to continue her own education, but willingly gives what instruction she can in secret to a group of neighbourhood girls. Parvana, herself. The novel is full of women that inspire respect, both for themselves, and for their real life counterparts.

Continue the story with Parvana’s Journey, Mud City, and My Name is Parvana, and be sure to check out the excellent audiobook edition of The Breadwinner, narrated by Rita Wolf.

Check out other reviews from The Prairie Library and from Blogging for Barakat, which supports an organisation committed to providing educational opportunities for women and children in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India.

Read an article about how one teacher has used Parvena’s stories in her classroom: Expanding Their Worlds Through Books by Tara Smith

Firegirl by Tony Abbott

Firegirl coverTom Bender is a typical Grade 7 kid. He’s shy, fascinated by sports cars (he’s dying for a ride in his best friend’s uncle’s Cobra!) and has a crush on a girl. He and his classmates are shaken up though, when Jessica joins their class.

Jessica is no ordinary girl. Imagine what it might feel like to be trapped inside a burning car as it ignites, leaving you screaming for it to stop, for water and ice to stop your body from burning any more.  Imagine how terrible it would feel to lose your once-beautiful face, to be called “Firegirl” by your peers.  Imagine holding out your hand to say your prayers with the whole class and have a classmate purposely avoid touching it.

While all the other students reject Jessica, Tom is kind and brave enough to hold her hand. He gets to know her and listens to the story behind her scars, changing his outlook on life.

Though perhaps a bit slow in its plot development, Tony Abbott’s compelling book explicitly addresses social and moral issues such as peer pressure and discrimination based on outer appearances. Told through the eyes of Tom, it challenges readers to think about their own vulnerabilities, and assumptions that they might make. It also is a tale about courage — both the successes and challenges that can arise from taking the extra step to try and live life “normally.”

See what others thought about the book:

Kirkus Review’s Book review

Kidsread’s Book review

Democrat and Chronicle : Student Review

– A student-made book trailer

This Dark Endeavour: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein, Book I by Kenneth Oppel

This Dark Endeavour coverVictor may be brilliant, but it’s his twin brother, Konrad, who seems to have life figured out. Konrad is cheerful, athletic, and gets along with everyone, while Victor is passionate and stubborn — fitting in doesn’t come easily. There’s jealousy, to be sure, especially when their childhood companion seems to become more than just (distant) cousin Elizabeth to both brothers at the same time. Still, the boys love one another deeply, and the majority of their daily lives is lived in common.

When Konrad falls mysteriously and seriously ill, Victor is determined to do whatever is necessary to make him well. Dismissing the ineffectual methods of conventional doctors as a waste of time, Victor, his cousin, and their friend, Henry Clavel, turn to the books collected in a library hidden deep under the Frankensteins’ castle. Everything rational marks the books as untrustworthy, but the promised Elixir of Life appears to be Konrad’s only chance. The thing must be attempted, no matter what the cost.

Though I’m not generally a fan of the sort of dark, emotional atmosphere Oppel evokes here, to me it felt very much in line with what I remember of Shelley’s novel, even if the specific details didn’t quite line up with the original. I really enjoyed the questing and the complex relationships between the main characters — the fact that most of them had conflicting motivations in particular made the characters feel remarkably real. I think that This Dark Endeavor (and its sequel, Such Wicked Intent) would work especially well either as an introduction to Shelley’s novel, and as a follow up to the same. The novel stands on its own, but there’s so much potential to draw more from both Oppel and Shelley by reading each novel with the other in mind.

Find more reviews at Librarianaut and The Globe and Mail.

Find some great extras — a discussion guide, videos of the author talking about the book, and more — on Kenneth Oppel’s website.