Around the World by Matt Phelan

Around the World coverTake three determined people, set before them a challenge they can’t refuse, and get ready for (vicarious) adventure.

Toward the end of the 19th century, three individuals took on the challenge of travelling around the world, each for his or her own reasons, and each in his or her own way. Thomas Stevens, eager to leave behind a life in the mines, taught himself to manage one of the new bicycles and peddled across the United States. When the first trip went well, he decided to continue his journey across the Atlantic to England, through Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, and finally across the Pacific to finish back in San Francisco. Reporter Nellie Bly set out specifically to outdo Jules Verne’s Phileas Fogg. With only one small bag, the clothes on her back, and a pet monkey purchased along the way, Bly flung herself around the world, gaining more fans with every mile, and beating Fogg (and a contemporary competitor from another publication) handily. Joshua Slocum, a retired sailor apparently made obsolete by the rise of steamships, intended little more than to take once more to the sea. Where Stevens’ journey was characterised by people-watching and new friends, and Bly’s by an expectation that the people along her way would cooperate with her determination to make it around the world quickly, Slocum’s journey was almost entirely solitary, dependent on his memories, his expertise, and the wind.

The adventure and factoids that fill Around the World will easily hold the attention of middle grade readers, but don’t miss out on reading it yourself. Phelan’s artistic and literary presentation of these three stories is rich with humour and a keen sense of the complex relationship between the journey experienced, and the journey told.

Check out more reviews from Fyrefly’s Book Blog and Kirkus.

Read the stories from their own pens! Find Thomas Stevens’ description of his journey in Around the World on a Bicycle and Nellie Bly’s story in Nellie Bly’s Book, both available on Project Gutenberg.

Catch the book trailer:

Feeling the wanderlust? Find out what travelling around the world looks like today!

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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.

Ways to Live Forever by Sally Nicholls

Ways to Live Forever coverWhen he is eleven years old, and dying of cancer, Sam decides to write a book. Nothing big — just his own story, and his favourite interesting facts, and the questions that he wishes someone would answer (but no one ever does). Instructed initially just to “write something about yourselves,” Sam discovers that this is a great way to process how he, and the people around him, respond to the expectation the doctors have given that this will be his last battle with cancer.

Sam is particularly fond of lists, and one — an assignment to describe things he’d like to do — ends up providing the central thread through his book. Sam lists eight things that he’d like to do, without believing that any of them is really possible. When his friend, and fellow cancer patient, Felix, challenges him on that, Sam sets out to complete his list. Some are relatively easy: while his mom is busy shopping one afternoon, Sam sneaks off to trek up a down escalator. Others take creative interpretation, like the World Record Setting Occasional Wardrobe Nightclub. And at least one requires the help of his dad, who’s had a hard time believing that his son really won’t be healthy again.

Sam’s story is sometimes intense, often funny, and always very personal. Sam and his family and friends are fully-realised and complex; together they provide an engaging picture of one child’s death that avoids cliché and manipulation while suggesting how others in a similar situation might feel. Sam shows fear and anger, and determination and humour and curiosity. His mother is weary and grieving and expects homework and manners while understanding that sometimes going sledding together is more important than responsibilities. His father denies, and loves, and does what he can to help his son to do something silly and improbable and somehow deeply important. If you’re looking for a novel that is honest and moving, this is one to find.

Find more reviews at The Weaving Knight and Inis Magazine (the publisher’s website also offers a collection of journal reviews).

Watch the trailer for the (so far) limited-release film based on the book. Explore the website to find out how the makers hope to use the film to help fight childhood cancer.

Ten: For Young Writers Part 3 — Stories about Young Writers

This last For Young Writers post leaves advice (mostly) behind in favour of story. The writers described in these stories may approach the task with eagerness or doubt, teacher expectations, or a deep need of their own to write. What they have in common is a growing understanding of the potential of their own words.

Once Upon an Ordinary School Day written by Colin McNaughton and illustrated by Satoshi Kitamura
On a perfectly ordinary, ho hum day, a new teacher arrives who challenges his students to open their imaginations to music and story. In bare handfuls of words, McNaughton captures a multitude of approaches to creativity, as well as the effects that creativity can have on those willing to give it a try. Continue reading

Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson

Hattie Big Sky coverHattie Inez Brooks arrives in rural Montana in January, 1918. Behind her is a lifetime of being shuffled from one reluctant relative to another — whenever someone stops needing her help, on she goes. Before her are the remaining requirements for “proving up” the land claim her Uncle Chester has left her. Specifically, in the next 11 months, 16-year-old Hattie must plant 480 fence posts, farm 40 acres, and finish the season with enough money to pay her debts and cover the final fee that will make the land hers.

Hattie takes the challenge eagerly, thrilled to be working toward a home that’s truly her own. With advice from books and neighbours, determination, and especially the help of the Mueller family down the road, it looks like Hattie just might make it. But in 1918, hard work in the fields isn’t necessarily enough to earn the respect of the community. With WWI reaching its peak, patriotism is everything, and suspicion is everywhere. Though Hattie dutifully attends town events in support of the war, and promises far more than she can afford in the war bonds drive, her friendship with the part-German Mueller family means she shares their assumed guilt.

It’s a year full of challenges, some funny, others devastating. As Hattie struggles toward her November deadline, letters to a childhood friend on the front line and Wingfield-esque, “making a go of the farm” articles for a city newspaper in Iowa allow her to interpret and reinterpret her experiences, gradually drawing meaning from the senseless, and preparing to face an unknown future with grace and courage.

I grew up loving homesteading stories, and I’ve become increasingly fascinated by home front stories in the last few years. Hattie Big Sky does a fantastic job of exploring both in a period of overlap I didn’t know existed. If you haven’t yet, read this book — you won’t regret it!

Find more reviews at Nerdy Book Club and Slatebreakers.

Check out the publisher’s Reader’s Guide.

Catch a sample of one of the Wingfield plays:

Watch for a review of the sequel, Hattie Ever After this fall!

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

Word after Word after Word by Patricia MacLachlan

Word after Word after Word coverThe kids in Miss Cash’s fourth grade class have their very own, real, live author for the last six weeks of school. Each day, Ms. Mirabel teaches them a little bit more about writing: that people might write for lots of different reasons — to tell a story or ask a question or figure out what they think or feel about something; that different people write in different ways; that writing gives you a chance to be brave. The story focuses on a group of friends within the class, and explores the ways that each child takes on Ms. Mirabel’s challenge to be brave. Russell, who helps his parents by watching his baby brother Oliver every afternoon, writes about missing his dog, Everett. May expresses her frustration with her parents’ determination to adopt another child, and her surprised affection for the funny-looking baby who arrives. Lucy struggles to write something free of the sadness that surrounds her mother’s cancer. Gradually their writing, and the conversations that surround it, help the children to understand and share their experiences a little bit better.

Word after Word after Word is a beautiful story. There’s no doubt that the children are more articulate — and certainly more sensitive to each others’ feelings – than most real people of any age. As Ms. Mirabel points out, though, sometimes writing something unreal — a parable, a metaphor, a remarkably compassionate child — helps to communicate something true. I think that MacLachlan may have managed just that.

Check out more reviews from Shelf Elf and The Deakin Review of Children’s Literature.

Find some great questions and activities in the publisher’s teaching guide for Word after Word after Word.