Flora & Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo is the story of Flora, a comic book reader and natural-born cynic, and Ulysses, a squirrel with superpowers as a result of a close encounter with a vacuum cleaner.
If that sounds wacky, it is. Delightfully wacky. It’s a quick and funny read told from the point of view of both girl and squirrel, and it includes comic-style illustrations by K. G. Campbell. It’s also a touching meditation on loneliness, hope, and love. Larrabee and I both liked it a lot.
This book won the Newbery Medal in 2014. As Flora would say, “Holy bagumba! Holy unanticipated occurrences!”
If you’re missing summer as much as we are, you should pick up a copy of The Cardboard Kingdom by Chad Sell. Larrabee and I aren’t normally big fans of graphic novels, but we both enjoyed this one.
It’s a collection of short stories about a diverse group of kids who use ordinary cardboard to transform themselves and their neighborhood. The Sorceress, the Big Banshee, the Huntress, the Gargoyle, and others go on imaginative quests and navigate real world challenges during summer vacation.
The art is terrific and the stories are engaging. I wish Larrabee and I had read The Cardboard Kingdom together because it would have prompted some good discussions.
Cloud and Wallfish by Anne Nesbet is an intriguing historical novel set behind the Iron Curtain in 1989 East Berlin.
The most unusual things about Noah Keller are his astonishing stutter and his photographic memory. Other than that, he’s an ordinary American 5th grader. He goes to school, plays soccer, and celebrates his 11th birthday with a bowling party.
One day, though, his parents pick him up from school and announce that they’re going on an “urgent expedition” that will be “better than fun.” They’re going to spend six months in East Germany while his mom does research on special education. The only catch: Noah will have to be known as Jonah Brown, he’ll have to go back to being 10 years old, and he’ll have to remember lots of rules (such as Rule #1: “They will always be listening and often be watching. Don’t forget that!”).
Despite his parents’ excitement, Noah/Jonah finds East Germany lonely and boring until he meets Claudia, a girl who lives with her grandmother in the apartment downstairs. They make friends as they try to figure out what’s true in a world filled with secrets and lies.
Some of the things I liked best about this book are:
- The historical setting. Even though I was alive in 1989, I learned a lot from this book about life in East Germany and about some of the events leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Each chapter ends with a “Secret File” that provides necessary historical context for the events of the story. But these files are not dry textbook entries that you might be tempted to skip. Rather they’re engaging asides by a narrator with personality.
- The friendship between Claudia (Cloud) and Noah/Jonah (Wallfish). As I’ve mentioned many times before, I’m fond of friendship stories, and this is a great one. I love the way that these two kids from different cultures initially bond over a jigsaw puzzle and come to trust each other.
- The relationship between Noah and his parents. Noah and his parents are close and loving, and yet, they have secrets from each other. Part of what’s interesting about this story is that the reader, like Noah, assumes that his parents are spies without finding out exactly what they’re doing in East Germany.
Although the main character is young (10 years old), I’d recommend this book mainly for older middle grade readers.
It’s back-to-school week for our family, and we’ve been getting our school supplies organized. We don’t have a magic pencil, but at least we have a terrific book about a magic pencil: All the Answers by Kate Messner.
Middle schooler Ava Anderson grabs an ordinary-looking blue pencil out of her family’s junk drawer one day so she’ll be prepared for her math class. When she doodles a question in the margin of her quiz (“What is the formula to find the circumference of a circle?”), a voice answers in her head (“Two pi R”).
With the help of her best friend Sophie, she starts to explore what you can do with a pencil that seems to have all the answers: get homework help, amaze their friends, and figure out when shoes will go on sale. They learn that the pencil can’t predict the future, though. For example, it can’t them which boy Sophie will kiss first. But it can tell them which boys have a crush on Sophie.
Ava is a worrier, and at first, she likes being able to ask questions all the time. She likes knowing what her teacher thinks or what her grandfather wants. But then she starts to worry about what will happen when the pencil can’t be sharpened anymore. And worse yet, what will she do if she finds out something she doesn’t want to know?
All the Answers is a satisfying story with both funny and sad parts. It’s about having the courage to act even when you’ve thought about everything that can go wrong. I’d recommend it for any kid, especially kids who (like Ava) get anxious about everything from tests to tryouts to field trips.
How Oscar Indigo Broke the Universe (And Put It Back Together Again) by David Teague is a light-hearted fantasy about a boy who isn’t very good at baseball and a watch that can stop time.
Oscar Indigo has more team spirit than anyone else on the East Mt. Etna Wildcats, but he’s never gotten a hit. Then, in the final inning of the championship game, the team’s best player is injured and Oscar is the only player left on the bench. The coach puts him in to hit with two outs, a runner on first base, and his team trailing by one run.
The situation seems hopeless, but Oscar has a special watch in his pocket. When he’s down to his last strike, he uses the watch to freeze the time while he places his ball just over the outfield fence. The Wildcats win and Oscar is a hero.
But it turns out that hitting the game-winning home run is not as satisfying when you know it’s fake. And, to make matters worse, the universe is now out of whack. Oscar will need to figure out a way to give the universe its 19 seconds back and beat the West Mt. Etna Yankees fair and square if he wants to fix what he’s broken.
Larrabee and I both enjoyed this one. It’s a good read for the boys–and girls–of summer.
I couldn’t resist this cover. Stacy DeKeyser, you had me at baseball. Throw in a rhinoceros and I’m definitely hooked.
I started to read The Rhino in Right Field without any idea what type of story it would be. It turned out to be a charming historical novel set in 1948 Milwaukee where the kids play baseball in the city zoo (with a rhinoceros named Tank just behind the right field fence).
Twelve-year-old Nick Spirakis is the son of Greek immigrants, who expect him to work hard in school all week, attend Greek school on Tuesday evenings, and then work in his father’s shoe repair and hat shop on Saturdays. He has his own dreams, though, including entering the “batboy for a day” contest at the local minor league ballpark.
According to the author’s note, the main character is based on her father, and many of the period details are true. What fun!
Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor has been called “the Nigerian Harry Potter.” That’s how I convinced Larrabee to read it, but the comparison doesn’t really capture what I liked most about this fantasy that draws from Nigerian folklore.
Twelve-year-old Sunny Nwazue is an American-born albino living with her parents and older brothers in Aba, Nigeria. The other kids at school bully her and call her a “stupid pale-faced akata witch” (which is extremely rude).
Then, she learns that she is a Leopard Person with magical abilities. Among the Leopards, being an albino, which she’s always considered a weakness, is a rare gift. As she’s initiated into this new world, she discovers that she and her three friends must stop the evil Black Hat Otokoto and the masquerade Ekwensu.
I loved the magical world of this book with its chittim (money that falls from the sky when you gain knowledge), juju knives, and spirit faces.
Although Larrabee read and enjoyed this book, I would recommend it mainly for kids 12 and older. It might be too intense for younger ones.
This book is the first in a series. The sequel, Akata Warrior, is already available, and a third book is planned.