Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Puzzling World of Winston Breen

Trying to read all the novels in my new classroom library has kept me very busy (it's been cobwebby around here lately)! Yesterday, I finished The Puzzling World of Winston Breen, a book that I will be recommending to my boy-heavy classes. Readers who enjoy mysteries and puzzles will love Eric Berlin's novel.

Winston Breen loves puzzles, so when the chance to go on a real treasure hunt comes up, he jumps at the chance. He works with a misfit crew that includes two squabbling fortune hunters, a librarian-heiress, an ex-cop, and his little sister. As in most novels like this, everyone has a secret and the plot twists will keep the reader guessing. Adding to the high interest are the puzzles that are interspersed throughout the novel, with the answers available at the back of the book.
At times, it felt like there were too many characters to track, and that Winston's friends were added in solely to humanize him. I would have preferred that the crucial characters were better developed. Still, I like that Winston is able to love puzzles and be popular with his peers.
My students are always looking for mysteries, but unfortunately, I don't know of many, so usually recommend The Westing Game. I appreciate this updated version for giving my students another option.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Annie Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller

Imagine how difficult it would be to illustrate what it's like to be deaf and blind. It seems impossible to me, but Joseph Lambert was able to do it in the very beginning pages of Annie Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller. Set against a black background, a white outline of Helen shows her struggling with a spoon and other objects being forced upon her. The shadowy figure of Helen Keller may start the story, yet this book belongs to Annie Sullivan, her famous teacher.

Diving into Sullivan's difficult childhood as an orphan with poor eyesight, the reader gets a well-rounded picture of a historical figure who is exalted in the public's eye. Sullivan was hardworking and dedicated, true, but she was also difficult and obstinate. On a personal note, my mother worked at the Perkins School for the Blind, so I loved learning more about the school's history and its relationship with Sullivan and Keller.

My one quibble is the type that Lambert chose. Much of the book is written as a letter from Sullivan, and her cursive is faint and small. I found this print to be tiring to read. Regardless, it is worth the effort; this is a book worth sharing.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Friends With Boys

Faith Erin Hicks' Friends With Boys is the first graphic novel that I read as part of the judging for the final round of the 2012 Cybils. If this is a sign of the books to come, I am so excited to read the other nine finalists.

Maggie spent her entire life being homeschooled with her three older brothers, but her mother has left them, so she must face ninth grade in a public school for the first time. In addition to the stress of making new friends, finding her way around, and navigating life without her brothers, she is followed by the ghost of a mariner's wife. The inclusion of the ghost reminded me of 2011 Cybils nominee Anya's Ghost, and also was the least necessary part of the story for me. It didn't tie up neatly and didn't add much to the characters I cared about.

As for characters I cared about, there were plenty. Maggie is fantastic and realistic, and her relationship with her brothers was refreshing. Not all teens hate their siblings, and it's nice for them to see themselves reflected in literature. Actually, a lot of different types of people show up in Hicks' work; this broad spectrum drives home the message to be yourself. If that isn't clear enough, a reformed jerk says, "I don't want to be that guy being an *** to that other guy just because he does theater instead of sports, okay? That crap stays for life, whether we want it to or not." The coming of age aspect of the novel felt real; not everyone is forgiven, just like in everyday life.

Hicks' illustrations are detailed and expressive. The characters have flaws and look normal, keeping with the realistic feel of Friends With Boys. This is a book that I would share with all ninth graders who are concerned about finding their place in high school.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Days of Blood and Starlight

Hey y'all! Remember me? Turns out my new school in a new language in a new continent takes a lot of time and energy!

Daughter of Smoke and Bone was one of my favorite books that I read last year, so I bought the sequel the day it was released. Yet, somehow, it took me two months to read it, and I don't think that can be blamed on my busy schedule.

Where Laini Taylor's first novel in the series was all about love, discovery, and the creation of a beautiful world; Days of Blood and Starlight is full of death, war, and the destruction of many worlds. That will never hold my interest, no matter how gorgeous Taylor's writing is. Her sentences are still as wonderfully descriptive, but what they describe does not appeal to me.

The second novel in a trilogy is always challenging...the story needs to be moved ahead, but there can be no real resolution, and a beloved character or two usually gets the chop. The only reason I kept reading Days of Blood and Starlight is because I am convinced that Taylor will give readers the satisfying conclusion that they deserve.