Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures written by Kate DiCamillo and illustrated by K.G. Campbell

Flora and Ulysses coverFlora Belle Buckman knows better than to hope. Already a confirmed cynic (her mother says so), ten-year-old Flora has adopted the very helpful comic book feature, Terrible Things Can Happen to You, as her guidebook. Its often-repeated advice, “Do not hope; instead, observe,” has proven especially useful, rescuing her from the perils of hope and reminding her that acting on what she sees and hears is much more reliable. Observation tells her that her mother loves Mary Ann, the shepherdess lamp, more than she does Flora, for example, and allows Flora to behave accordingly.

The problem is, there seems to be a lot of hopefulness around Flora lately. First there was the squirrel, Ulysses, who survived being vacuumed up and gained amazing superhero powers, like flying and the ability to type poetry. He’s always hopeful about something, and he loves Flora more than any lamp, and possibly more than giant donuts. Then the annoying William Spiver showed up next door; he seems to be setting a lot of his hopes on being Flora’s friend. Even her father, quite possibly the world’s loneliest man, seems to be feeling hopeful, what with everything that’s been going on. And Dr Meescham ignores Flora’s favourite advice entirely, hoping always that something wonderful will happen, even when it doesn’t. Even when terrible things happen instead.

Will seal blubber be enough to help a young cynic hold out against so much hopefulness?

DiCamillo has a knack for blending Douglas Adams’s casual absurdity with a fair amount of heart. Add two children with vocabularies that are impressive, but never unexplained, a nod to the grammar-sensitive, and a poetry-loving squirrel you can’t help but love, and you have a story that will appeal particularly to those of us with a bit of a nerdy bent.

Find other reviews at the New York Times, A Rogue Librarian’s Reading List, and Fuse #8.

Discover the Flora and Ulysses origin story in this article from Publishers Weekly.

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The Favorite Daughter by Allen Say

The Favorite Daughter coverYuriko is excited to bring a photo of herself to school for a class album project. Among the various photos that her dad has of her, she picks one of her younger self in a red kimono.  But when her new art teacher mispronounces her name, and classmates tease her for not looking Japanese, Yuriko is crushed and decides that she wants to be called Michelle instead.

Yuriko’s father respects “Michelle’s” decision, and takes her out to dinner to discuss things. They end up going for some sushi, and the next day, he takes her to visit “Japan” in Golden Gate Park. Her upset towards her original name begins to resolve when an artist draws an especially beautiful picture of a lily flower for Yuriko, since her name means “child of the lily” in Japanese.

Meanwhile, her new assignment for her art class is to create a rendition of the Golden Gate Bridge. She’s already drawn a picture of the bridge, but she wants to be unique in her work, and is stuck not knowing what to do. Furthermore, when Yuriko and her father get around to driving on the bridge, they find it in some dense fog. While a little flustered with how things have turned out, her dad’s suggestion to use her imagination sparks Yuriko’s creativity. She asks for cotton and a cardboard box, but will not let her father know what she is up to until her project is completed and her name has been written on it.

Say, best known for his picture book Grandfather’s Journey and Tea with Milk, does a marvellous job of depicting struggles that have the potential to run deep, such as self-esteem. Printed with photographs of a real “Yuriko,” it addresses some of the feelings and reactions one might have to being different, and shows the patience and understanding of a father who allows his child to work through her frustrations while being continually supportive.

See book reviews by Kirkus reviews, Publisher’s Weekly and BookDragon.

Take a look at the OPB PBS video on Allen Say, writer and illustrator

Ten: Saying Goodbye

Modern kids’ and YA fiction doesn’t go easy on its readers. Some of the best books out there look honestly at topics as real and raw as war, racial injustice, and poverty, giving readers a safe space to engage deeply with these topics, and guidance to help them understand and respond in healthy, constructive ways. This week’s Ten highlights stories about loss and grief. Though the stories are sometimes painful to read, they almost always end with hope: in friendship, memory, and new things to come.

Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine
Caitlin’s brother, Devon, used to help her understand how things worked and what she was supposed to do. A handy thing when you have Asperger’s, and a lot of what people do (and expect) really doesn’t make sense. But Devon was killed in a school shooting, and with their dad turning his back on the world in an attempt to cope, Caitlin’s left pretty much on her own to figure things out. A counselor at school helps some, and so does her friendship with a younger boy she meets at recess. But Caitlin wants closure, and she’s going to have to find it for herself. Continue reading

Enthusiasm by Polly Shulman

Enthusiasm coverAshleigh has a history of enthusiasm. When she loved Little House on the Prairie, she tried to wear her flowered nightgown to school. When she was into The Wet Blankets, she camped out — with the ingredients for a wet blanket salute — in front of a music store that promised free tickets to their next concert. Now, besotted with the newly-discovered Pride and Prejudice, Ashleigh is covering her “lower limbs,” learning country dances, and figuring out how to crash a prep school dance to find Mr Darcy…and a nice Mr Bingley for her best friend.

Julie, the best friend, and the narrator of Enthusiasm, is a quieter sort. She’s happier reading a good book than trying to live it, but she goes along with Ashleigh’s projects, partly out of love for her friend, and partly because, embarrassment aside, she usually does have a good time. It’s true that Pride and Prejudice was Julie’s favourite book long before Ashleigh embraced it, and the “Mr Bingley” they meet at the dance does seem a much better fit for her enthusiastic friend. But Ashleigh’s never been anything but generous, and sometimes you have to put aside your own feelings to support your friend. Right?

One of Enthusiasm’s real strengths is its exploration of friendship. Julie and Ashleigh misunderstand and occasionally (unintentionally) hurt one another, but both are consistently motivated by an interest in the other’s happiness. Is the story rather “light and sparkling”? Sure. But with solid characters, believable friendships, and a hint of Austen more creative than most, I’d say this one’s well worth a read.

A small warning: The characters do use an unusual collection of slang words, which is a bit jarring at first. The words are used consistently, though, so they fade into the background pretty quickly.

Read more reviews at Austen Prose and Angieville

Read an author-supplied excerpt from Ashleigh’s book, Dancing and Its Relations to Education and Social Life, With a New Method of Instruction Including a Complete Guide to the Cotillion (German), With 250 Figures, by Allen Dodworth: http://www.pollyshulman.com/dodworth.html

Everything on a Waffle by Polly Horvath

Everything on a Waffle coverWhen Primrose Squarp’s parents disappear at sea, the town places her in the care of the ancient Miss Perfidy, contacts her uncle, and waits for her to mourn. When she doesn’t (Primrose is certain her parents are alive somewhere), they turn her over the guidance counselor, Miss Honeycutt, who is biding her time in Coal Harbor, B.C. until she can claim her inheritance back home in England. Miss Honeycutt, it turns out, is far more interested in Primrose’s Uncle Jack than she is in Primrose, and rather more interested in herself than in Uncle Jack. Uncle Jack proves to be a dear soul who quits the Navy and begins a development project in Coal Harbor in order to care for his niece. Unfortunately, the new project keeps him busy — and eventually lands him in the hospital — so Primrose is left largely on her own. Aside from a couple of minor accidents, Primrose manages pretty well on her own, making friends with Kate Bowzer, owner of The Girl on the Red Swing, where everything is served on a waffle. Kate offers no judgement on Primrose’s certainty regarding her parents’ safety, and helps Primrose to fill her mother’s notebook with recipes to share on her parents’ return (the recipes are included at the end of each chapter).

Primrose’s story is simple and sweet, if a little too exaggerated to feel quite real. Most of the characters are entertaining caricatures, playing out their roles on the periphery of Primrose’s life without experiencing any real development of their own. Still, Primrose’s faith in her parents, her friendship with Kate, and her resilience throughout the series of small traumas in Everything on a Waffle make for an appealing and memorable character. I’m looking forward to reading the sequel, One Year in Coal Harbor.

Read the Kirkus review, or one from Bunbury in the Stacks (spoiler warning).

Listen to Polly Horvath talk about the process of writing Everything on a Waffle.

Freak the Mighty by Rodman Philbrick

Freak the Mighty cover“Freak” is Kevin, a sheltered preteen who has a form of dwarfism that, among other things, makes it difficult for him to walk. He’s focused his energy on learning, and it shows. “Mighty” is Max, who looks more like his father every day — not great news when your father is in jail for murdering your mother, and you’re living with grandparents who hated him even before that. Max has never been good in school, and has a reputation for taking out his frustrations on others.

The summer before grade eight, Kevin and his mother move in just down the street from Max. There’s some tension at first, but the boys soon discover that they make a surprisingly effective pair. With Kevin on Max’s shoulders, the two set out on knightly “quests” — standing up to bullies, rescuing a stolen purse — and along the way, Kevin coaches Max on reading and vocabulary. When they start school in September, things seem to go better for both boys than they ever have before. When things go badly wrong, though, it’ll take more than legends and big words to get them through.

I came across the movie The Mighty years ago, and loved it, but hadn’t read the book until now. What I remembered most from the movie was Max’s fear that he might be like his father after all, and to be honest, I didn’t really feel that level of depth in the book. The painful aspects of Kevin and Max’s lives were there, but understanding the more complex consequences of those realities depends heavily on the reader’s imagination. While this means that the story isn’t quite what I remembered, it does allow the novel to speak to readers of different ages, and even to the same reader at different times. A worthwhile pick for readers grade six and up who are interested in something a bit heavier.

Read the Nerdy Book Club or Inis review.

Check out a teaching guide for Freak the Mighty.

Watch the trailer for the movie adaptation, The Mighty.

Ten: Staying Home for School

As homeschooling becomes more mainstream, more and more novels are depicting homeschooled kids and teens, either as main or secondary characters. While many of these novels continue to oversimplify the decision to homeschool as being broadly ideological (e.g. based on distrust of what is being taught in school on moral or political grounds), some take a more nuanced approach, often coming to the conclusion that while the classroom has benefits, homeschooling is the best choice available for this student at this time. While the benefit to homeschooled readers of seeing their own (or similar) experiences represented in fiction is somewhat mitigated by the frequency with the novels focus on the characters’ return to school, the generally positive depiction of homeschooling itself is certainly a step in the right direction.

Ida B. and Her Plans to Maximize Fun, Avoid Disaster, and (Possibly) Save the World by Kathryn Hannigan
Ida B. (not to be confused with her mom, Ida) has been homeschooled most of her life. When her mother’s cancer makes homeschooling impossible — and simultaneously requires most of her beloved orchard to be sold to pay the medical bills — Ida B. is devastated and retreats into herself, shielding herself from fear and further betrayal by building a wall of anger that soon becomes nearly impenetrable. A heartbreaking and beautiful story less about homeschooling than about a very human response to loss. Still, Hannigan believably portrays some of the strengths and weakness of both homeschooling and public school.

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