The Great Animorphs Re-Read: #3 “The Encounter”

125333Animorphs #3: “The Encounter”

Publishing Info: Scholastic Paperbacks, August 1996

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Book Description: When Tobias, Jake, Rachel, Marco, and Cassie were given the ability to morph, they were also given one very important warning: Never stay in a morph for more than two hours. It seemed a small price to pay, since the kids know that humans everywhere are being forced to let slimy, spineless creatures creep into their brains. And the only way the kids can fight back is not to be human.

But Tobias stayed in his morph too long. And now he’s a hawk — with a boy’s mind — forever. Tobias knows they can’t give up. That they all made a promise. So now it’s four kids and a hawk against a force that’s determined to destroy them. Or die trying…

Narrator: Tobias

Plot: In which the Animorphs discover that even Yeerks need basic resources like water and they have decided that the best way to get it is to fly massive tanker ships through the mountains and drain remote lakes using straws. So, a totally normal premises to start out with! What’s even better is that Tobias discovers this while flying along and seeing a flock of geese ram straight into an invisible wall (the ship has a cloaking device ala Klingons) and comments that while geese are terrible creatures (I agree), even they don’t deserve this terrible fate. I mean, Cassie should be on board right there! Save the geese! Save the geese! This plot takes up much of the book with the Animorphs all acquiring two new morphs wolves (fun!) and trout (not fun!) to try and sabotage the Yeerk tanker ship. But much of the story is also focused on the actual hell that is Tobias’s life now as a hawk. It’s pretty much one long existential crisis for our main character. Let’s be honest, the “Adult Ugly Crying” section below is only one of many, many options.

A Hawk’s Life: Tobias is another of my favorite characters and honestly this probably had much to do with the facts that A.) he pairs up with Rachel, my absolute favorite and B.) I had a middle grade crush on him from this book cover. That hair style was so in back in the 90s guys! Anyways! We had small hints in Rachel’s book about how Tobias is adapting (or not adapting) to his life as a hawk. And here we really see it. The reality of what his life is actually going to be is starting to settle in. It was particularly interesting learning about how he is dealing with the hawk’s personality. In the other books, we’ve seen the Animorphs struggle with the animal minds of their morphs, but it was easy to forget that this would be a constant thing for Tobias. He’s not just a boy in a hawk’s body. The hawk’s instincts are still right there with him every day. But these struggles aside, there were a lot of good moments that highlight how Tobias has always been the most courageous and dedicated to fight against the Yeerks of the whole group. He had a more deep connection with Elfangor in the first book (something that I think comes up again later), and while he does find renewed vigor in his reason to fight, it’s also never been up for debate for him. His struggle is more focused on this new existence that has been forced upon him.

Our Fearless Leader: Jake once again highlights how he’s a great guy, but maybe not the most “with it” as far as being perceptive goes. There’s this really sad scene where we see that Jake has set up a drawer with blankets in his attic for Tobias to sleep in and leaves out canned food for him. But he doesn’t ever think about how these things might not work for a bird vs. a boy. There’s also some fun bits when Jake morphs a wolf and as the alpha of the pack gets rather distracted with..ahem..marking his territory. It left open a rather interesting (?) idea about morphing different gendered animals than their human counterparts.

Xena, Warriar Princess: In parallel to Jake, we have Rachel who is much more closely tuned in to Tobias’s struggles. She’s also paired up with him in the mini adventure in the beginning of the book which is basically her stomping across a used car lot as an elephant while Tobias rescues the live hawk that’s been caged and used as a mascot. It’s such a ridiculous image all together, and I loved everything about.

Peace, Love, and Animals: Cassie doesn’t have a whole lot in this. As usual, she’s the Animorphs “in” for some of their new morphs, like the wolf. And she has a fun moment later on when they’re trying to catch a fish to acquire. Jake’s all “This is great! It’ll take like 2 minutes!” And Cassie’s just side-eyeing him: “…have you ever fished before??”

The Comic Relief: Marco ends up saving the day for Tobias in this book. There’s some good comedic build up about Rachel being involved in a gymnastics show at the mall and Marco sneaking in to watch her (she’s adamantly against this plan, obviously). But what seems like a jokey side note, turns into a serious moment. Margo does sneak in, and it’s a good thing, too, since he’s able to break a glass ceiling with a baseball to save Tobias who is blindly careening towards it in the midst of a panic attack.

Best (?) Body Horror Moment: The fish morph. There’s a very graphic section where Tobias discusses how even Cassie, the expert morpher of the group, can’t make that look good. At one point there’s much detail about eyes sliding around to the sides of the head…

Couples Watch!: There are a couple of different ones in this book! First, we have the moment where Tobias is starting to forget himself and Rachel just happens to have a picture of him in her dresser to whip out at a moment’s notice. Then Tobias immediately seeks her out at the mall in the midst of his emotional/mental breakdown. And finally, when they’re all trapped in the ship as fish, Rachel and Tobias have a lovely little moment in the midst of the tragic reality that Rachel is surely about to die. Romantic angst everywhere!

If Only Visser Three had  Mustache to Twirl: He doesn’t do a whole lot in this book. But he definitely seems to be catching on to the whole “any animal could be an Andalite” train of thought. A perspective that does not bring good things to the local fauna of the little mountain lake. A few deer and birds are laser beam sizzled in the writing of this book.

Adult Ugly Crying at a Middle Grade Book: Yeah, so that part I referenced in the Marco section. Tobias has a moment of weakness to the hawk’s instincts and eats a mouse then freaks out about it and flies into a mall because that’s where Rachel is and all he can think of is getting to her. And, like all bird instincts would tell him, once trapped inside he makes a b-line for open air even if it’s through a glass ceiling. It’s never out right stated that Tobias might have been ok with hitting the glass and putting an end to it, but the implication is definitely there and it’s just terrible and so, so sad.  There’s also the bit towards the end when Rachel, trapped on the ship with the others, blatantly asks Tobias to take down the ship with them in it since they’d rather die than be tortured. So..yeah..this is a middle grade series.

What  a Terrible Plan, Guys!: So…their plan to disable the ship. Morph fish on land, flop around not being able to breathe while Tobias ferries them to the lake, swim up the straw to the ship, and then some how take the ship out. But…aren’t they in the ship when it gets taken out? And, as we see here, not having done any recon of the ship might present some problems. Like getting stuck in a tank that didn’t need to incorporate a teen-sized access panel when it was designed. 

Favorite Quote:

The obligatory Marco quote:

“Don’t say the word ‘cage’ around Tobias. He’ll do some guerrilla-commando-Ninja-SWAT-team-hawk-from-hell attack on the Center. And he’ll talk Rachel into stomping your house flat.” – Marco

And the more sweet quote from Rachel, the one person who serves as Tobias’s primary connection to humanity throughout this all.

“What counts is what is in your head and in your heart. A person isn’t his body. A person isn’t what’s on the outside.” – Rachel

Scorecard: Yeerks 1, Animorphs 1

The Animorphs get a point! Though their plan had some major flaws and they mostly got out of it due to sheer luck and bravery on Tobias’s part, they did in fact manage to disable the ship. Though, as they discuss later, it is likely that the Yeerks simply got another ship and found a different lake. But ah well, small wins!

Rating: Very good! The angst is strong in this one, but I loved every minute of it.

Note: I’m not going to rate these books since I can’t be objective at all! But I’ll give a one sentence conclusion and you can take from that what you will!

The Great Animorphs Re-Read:#2 “The Visitor”

324505Animorphs #2: “The Visitor”

Publishing Info: Scholastic Paperbacks, June 1996

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Book Description: Morphing is certainly more fun than Sega — you can soar as an eagle and walk as a cat. But being an ANIMORPH is by no means just fun and games. Rachel knew better than anyone. One of her best friends, Melissa, is acting very strange. And it looks like Melissa’s dad, who is also the school’s Assistant Principal, may be connected to evil aliens. Rachel can’t tell Melissa what the ANIMORPHS have learned, but Melissa doesn’t seem interested in talking to Rachel these days anyway. Could Melissa be one of “them?” With the help of Jake, Cassie, Tobias and Marco, Rachel plans to enter her friend’s house as a cat, intent on unlocking the secrets from within. If only Rachel could keep her mind off mice…

Narrator: Rachel

Plot: Fun, not-plot-related note, this was the first Animorphs book I read, because I was given it for a Christmas present by a relative who simply saw a cover with a cat and thought “Hey, Serena likes cats…” And thus, an addiction was started! 

The plot! The Animorphs aren’t quite sure what they’re supposed to be doing in this whole “battle the Yeerks” thing after their disastrous attempt at infiltrating the Yeerk pool in the last book. So, like all good decisions, they decide to simply follow around the one Controller (other than Tom) they know about: their vice principal Mr. Chapman. (This is such middle school greatness! Cuz of course a Yeerk big bad would be a school vice principal!) And they’re in is Rachel’s friend Melissa, Chapman’s daughter. This being Rachel’s story, she is the one to morph Melissa’s cat Fluffer McKitty (actual cat’s name!) and infiltrate her friend’s home. What she finds is a boatload of teen sadness and a secret basement set-up where Chapman and Visser Three discuss their evil plans to take over the world. Visser Three, however, is of the paranoid type, and after noticing the suspicious house cat lurking down there once,  is not about to take any chances a second time. Thus opening the final act of the story in which Rachel is carted off in a kitty carrier and barely escapes with her life!

Xena, Warriar Princess: Rachel is probably my favorite character (though Tobias and Marco give her a run for her money). In the other books, she’s portrayed as a rather simple example of the “heroically brave” one. So, it’s always interesting reading her books and getting to see beneath this front that she puts up for her friends. I had completely forgotten about her friendship with Melissa (and I’m pretty sure there’s not much more of it going forward), but it was a lovely glimpse into how seriously and deeply Rachel understands the word “friendship.” There are also plenty of examples that highlight Rachel’s tendency to charge headfirst into things and to believe that she needs to shoulder things alone. After getting spotted by Visser Three the first time she goes in as a cat, she is careful not to mention the incident to her friends, since she knows they will insist she not repeat the tactic going forward. And, given what happens…probably not the best idea, Rachel! But her bravery isn’t simply foolish headstrongness, she’s actually just that willing to make the sacrifices that are needed. Towards the end, when she thinks all is lost, she insists the others flee and that she’ll go down fighting alone. And it’s clear that this isn’t just lip service. She is truly just that willing to die for her friends.

One last note, in this book we get Rachel’s reason to continue this fight. And, no surprise given her characterizations that I discussed above, it’s because the Yeerks have hurt her friends, namely Melissa whose parents are both Controllers and have withdrawn from her completely:

Next time Marco asked why we were fighting the Yeerks, I knew I would have a whole new answer. Because they destroy the love of parents for their daughter. Because they made Melissa Chapman cry in her bed with no one to comfort her but a cat.

*sobs*

Our Fearless Leader: Jake’s main event in this book is spending waaaaay too much time as a flea riding around on kitty!Rachel. Turns out that Tobias (couples watch!) doesn’t quite believe Rachel when she claims nothing happened after her first trip in the house, and so the others come up with the brilliant plan of Jake going in with her. As a flea. He’s got a few funny lines towards the end, and it’s kind of relief to realize that Jake has a sense of humor, as all too often if feels like he’s just stoic-leader-“we must be responsible!!”-Jake.

A Hawk’s Life: Poor Tobias. (Obviously). But his time in this book is spent on some of the less sexy tasks. Like chasing an angry tom cat (original Fluffer’s not too keen on these random teens chasing him around the yard every night), catching shrews for Rachel to morph, then having to rescue kitty!Rachel at the very end. A feat that I’m not sure a red tailed hawk could even pull off, given the size and weight of your average tom cat.

Peace, Love, and Animals: Cassie doesn’t have a whole lot going on in this book. In the beginning there’s another example of the fact that she’s much better at morphing than the others. While de-morphing from birds, the others all look disgusting, while Cassie manages to save her wings for last and go for the “angel-like” look. She, along with Tobias, also notices that Rachel is acting strange after her first trip into the house.

The Comic Relief: Marco, too, doesn’t do a lot in this book. Though his quippy lines are still great! He does get to drive around a few bulldozers in the final confrontation at the end, which I think is our first example of Marco’s terrible driving. I do believe it comes up again later…with some disastrous results!

Best (?) Body Horror Moment: I’m sure if we had gotten an actual scene of Jake morphing the flea, that would have been the hands down winner. And really, morphing  a cat seems like one of the better options. The shrew…not so much. So, not really disgusting, but shrews in general seem like a morph to avoid given the extreme panicky state of their little rodent minds. Well…there you go…”little rodent minds” is disgusting enough!

Couples Watch!: Given that this is a Rachel book, we get a lot of Rachel/Tobias action. They’re pretty adorable, and by far my favorite couple (sorry Jake/Cassie, there’s just no competing with the “one of us is a hawk!” angst/tragedy!) We get a very pointed moment where Tobias privately thought speaks Rachel to be careful when she’s infiltrating the house. Not to mention his insight into her character to realize something’s up, and the dramatic rescue at the end!

If Only Visser Three had  Mustache to Twirl: I’m pretty sure that Visser Three wants to have his own cat. He spends a good amount of time admiring Rachel’s cat morph in this book, even going so far as to say that it’s a shame that the cat species is too small to be a good Yeerk host. Combined with the tiger-love from the last book…yeah, the Visser’s a cat person.

Adult Ugly Crying at a Middle Grade Book: Oh man, these books! In this one, we get the heart breaking scene of Melissa crying on her bed alone, cuddling kitty!Rachel because she doesn’t understand why her parents suddenly stopped loving her. And then later, when kitty!Rachel is being carted away in a cat carrier by Mr. Chapman, Melissa starts crying and asking why her cat is being taken away and when she finally gets an answer she’s like “But…didn’t you hear me before? I was crying!” and he’s like “Oh..were you?” It’s so awful. Another insight into how truly horrible the Yeerk invasion in when you think of these types of ramifications. It’s not just the hosts who are being hurt.

What  a Terrible Plan, Guys!: So, to catch Fluffer so that Rachel can acquire him, they decide that the absolute best plan is for Rachel to first morph a shrew and then run around as bait to lure Fluffer down from the tree. Yes. This plan is as dumb as it sounds.

Favorite Quote:

I have a feeling that many of these will be Marco quotes, but who cares! Here we have Marco’s insights on fashion. Background info: the Animorphs all have to morph in skintight clothing so as not to de-morph and be naked.

“Not Fantastic Four. I’m thinking more an X-Men kind of thing. It’s not about being identical, it’s just about having some style. Right now, if anyone saw us, they wouldn’t think ‘Oh, cool, superheroes,’ they’d think ‘Man, those people do not know how to dress.’”

Scorecard: Yeerks 1, Animorphs 0

The scorecard goes unchanged in this one. Not much really happens as far as a win/lose scenario.

Rating: A slower book than the first, but a deeper look into the truly awful, and often more unseen, side effects of the Yeerk invasion.

Note: I’m not going to rate these books since I can’t be objective at all! But I’ll give a one sentence conclusion and you can take from that what you will!

The Great Animorphs Re-Read: #1 “The Invasion”

776877Animorphs #1: “The Invasion”

Publishing Info: Scholastic Paperbacks, June 1996

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Book Description: Sometimes weird things happen to people. Ask Jake. He may tell you about the night he and his friends saw the strange light in the sky. He may even tell you about what happened when they realized the “light” was only a plane — from another planet. Here’s where Jake’s story gets a little weird. It’s where they’re told that the human race is under attack — and given the chance to fight back.

Now Jake, Rachel, Cassie, Tobias, and Marco have the power to morph into any animal they choose. And they must use that power to outsmart an evil that is greater than anything the world has ever seen…

Narrator: Jake

Plot: This book has so much going on, guys! It’s like some strange feat of magic that Applegate somehow fits this all in one, tiny book. We have the introductions to the gang, the introductions to the intergalactic war, the Andalites, the Yeerks, the “discover your powers” moment, two wacky mini adventures, and then finally, the climatic final arc.

Basically, 5 teens meet and then decide (very poor decision #1) to wander through a deserted construction site at night. Like you do.They then proceed to stumble across a UFO and a dying alien who identifies himself as Elfangor, an Andalite, whose species is in an intergalactic war with the Yeerks, evil alien slugs, essentially, that take over the life forms of other aliens and who are intent on seizing Earth as their next conquest. Elfangor explains how the Yeerks could be anyone, how they control the body and mind of their hosts by crawling in the ear and attaching to the brain, and how the Andalites are losing the war. The only hope is if he gives these kids a weapon to fight back while they wait for the Andalites to return with reinforcements some years in the future. And this weapon is the ability to turn into any animal whose DNA they acquire through touch. The catch being that if they stay in this morph for over 2 hours, they will be trapped forever as this animal (no terrible foreshadowing here or anything!).

They then meet the enemy: Visser Three, the only Yeerk with an Andalite body as a host (and thus the ability to also morph) who is just like a Bond villain with his villainy spelled with a capital “V.”  There are also other Yeerk-controlled minions made up of Taxxons, disgusting worm creatures with too many teeth, and the Hork-Bajir, the muscle of the group, huge aliens covered with razors. 

Seriously, there is so much plot I’m already overwhelmed trying to re-cap it! The Animorphs get their powers, learn to use them, discover that Jake’s brother Tom is a Controller (all the sads), figure out that this creepy, cult-like youth group called The Sharing is a Yeerk front to recruit new Controllers, and infiltrate the Yeerk pool (where the Yeerks must go every 3 days to feed), barely escaping Visser Three once again and really pretty much failing completely at their first mission. Also, Tobias gets stuck as a hawk. The end!

(I promise this section will be shorter in the future, when there’s less set up to get through, too!)

Our Fearless Leader: This is Jake’s story so we get a lot from him. We learn that he is best friends with Marco, cousin to Rachel, has a crush on Cassie, and saved Tobias from a close-call with a toilet and some bullies. All of this goes to say that Jake is a pretty good guy who naturally falls into the leadership role of this group, much to his own dismay. His relationship with Tom, his older brother, is central to this story and saving Tom from the Controllers becomes his main motivation for continuing this battle. In this book he morphs his own dog, a gecko, and acquires his battle morph: a tiger.

Xena, Warriar Princess: This is Rachel, Jake’s cousin. Our intro to her is rather minimal, but we find out that she is model-level beautiful (but, ew, gross, she’s Jake’s cousin!), but is also the most natural fighter of the group. I had forgotten about her wacky relationship with Marco, but their quipping back and forth was one of my favorite parts of this book. Her battle morph is an elephant, though I’m pretty sure this changes later on as even here this proves problematic. She can’t fit up the tunnel to escape the Yeerk pool and has to demorph as she runs. How she survives, no one knows. Or…you know, author’s prerogative!

A Hawk’s Life: What a bummer this section title even is! Tobias’s life is rough. Terrible home like (no parents, shunted from one relative to another), bully-filled school life, and now, stuck as a hawk cuz he essentially felt more comfortable as a bird than a boy. Some people read his arc in this story as one pointing towards him wanting to become a hawk full-time, but to me, this was a boy who was trying to escape his life, but didn’t mean to fall in this trap. Obviously his battle morph is now himself as a hawk. *sniff*

Peace, Love, and Animals: Cassie doesn’t have a whole lot going on in this book. It’s notable that she, along with Tobias, note that Rachel is acting strangely after her first mission into the house.

The Comic Relief: Oh, Marco! How I love thee! Marco is Jake’s best friend, and at first comes off as the stereotypical funny guy of the group. But Marco is also the smartest, I’m pretty sure, being the first to pick up on the “Tom’s a Controller!” and “The Sharing sounds like a front!” vibes. Marco, too, has tragic home life with the recent loss of his mother. This being the case, he’s also one of the more unwilling members in the fight, not wanting to burden his grieving father with another loss. His battle morph is a gorilla.

Best (?) Body Horror Moment: These books contain way more body horror than I remembered as a kid! So each review will feature this lovely section where you all get to enjoy the revulsion with me! In this book, we have not only Jake eating a spider while in morph (with all the talk about feeling it move in his stomach later included) but also losing his tail after being stepped on and seeing it wriggle around on the ground behind him.

Couples Watch!: Ahh, teen love! Our couples are already laid out for us in this book, which was another surprise as I thought these hints came later. But Jake discusses how he maybe, kind of, ok really, thinks Cassie is pretty awesome. And Tobias tends to land on Rachel’s shoulder, for some unknown reason that poor, delusional cousin Jake wonders about. So cute!

If Only Visser Three had  Mustache to Twirl: Visser Three makes two appearances in the book, and in both he is established as a big bad with a penchant for show-boating. He boasts and talks himself up at every possible moment! He also has a fondness for tigers, it seems, admiring Jake’s morph while trying to fire blast him as the Animorphs escape.

Adult Ugly Crying at a Middle Grade Book: A tie between Jake’s older brother Tom fighting so hard to get out of the Yeerk pool only for Jake to see him at breakfast the next morning knowing that the Yeerks captured him and he is once again under their control and Tobias. Just everything about him.

What  a Terrible Plan, Guys!: There are a lot of truly awful plans in these books, from what I remember. For this book, it’s pretty much the whole plan to infiltrate the Yeerk pool all together. No recognizance. Half of the people don’t have appropriate morphs (Cassie can only morph a horse! A HORSE!). And several things go wrong right off the bat (Tobias already in morph, cutting his time short. Cassie’s missing.) that should have served as enough warnings to maybe spend a bit more time on this whole idea.

Favorite Quote:  This quote illustrates perfectly why Marco is a favorite character of mine and why I, too, tend to get exasperated with Cassie.

“Don’t be so sure,’ Cassie said. ‘We’re fighting for Mother Earth. She has some tricks up her sleeves.’
‘Good grief,’ Marco said. ‘Let’s all buy Birkenstocks and go hug some trees.”

Scorecard: Yeerks 1, Animorphs 0

This one goes to the Yeerks, since the Animorphs’ biggest accomplishment was escaping with their lives, and even then it was a loss considering the whole Tobias situation.

Rating: Awesome start that is still fun today, full of adventure, danger, and more sadness than is acceptable!

Note: I’m not going to rate these books since I can’t be objective at all! But I’ll give a one sentence conclusion and you can take from that what you will!

 

 

 

 

 

Serena’s Review: “Wondrous”

32578571Book: “Wondrous” by Travis M. Riddle

Publishing Info: January 17, 2017

Where Did I Get this Book: ARC

Book Description: Miles went to sleep tucked tightly in bed in his Austin apartment and woke up in the middle of a damp, dark forest in the kingdom of Rompu, a land being torn apart by a civil war between its king and queen.

Miles has few companions in this vast kingdom, which is filled with fantastical animals and flora yet sprinkled with familiar items like digital clocks and vinyl records. As he searches for a way to return home, he discovers that certain memories trigger magical abilities: he can shoot fireballs from his palms, heal with nothing but a touch, and more. But as he struggles to make sense of this new world, his thoughts are punctuated by painful memories of his sick grandmother, quarreling parents, and an icy school therapist.

When Miles learns that a monstrous entity flying through the countryside and killing for sport was summoned from a portal to another realm, he believes this creature is the key to learning how to open another rift and return home. Tracking down this beast and mastering his newfound magical abilities may be the only way for Miles to help save Rompu and get back to his family in Texas.

Review:  I received an ARC for this book from the author, and after checking out the plot synopsis, it sounded like a book that might be up my alley! I always love an “other world” story where our hero is plopped down with as much confusion as we the readers have, and I was intrigued by the idea of the protagonist being such a young boy.

The story doesn’t waste any time getting started. I was a bit concerned after reading the first chapter and having Miles so suddenly transported to this new land with very little explanation for how/why he was transported and no backstory to support the reader’s interest in Miles story. While I still wish there had been a bit more set up to Miles’ trip to this new world, I was pleased to discover the clever way the author provided this backstory and connected Miles’ real life problems to his own burgeoning powers in this new world.

The magic system was rather simple, but the way Riddle connected the use of the power to Miles’ memories of his home life and the emotions that these memories inspired was an interesting take. I appreciated the inclusion of these aspects of Miles’ life. It would have been all too easy to simply write a fun, adventurous romp for this character. But instead, through Miles, Riddle addresses many aspects of childhood that are challenging, such as parental conflict, the death of aged relatives, and struggles with school.

I wavered back and forth with regards to my opinion of Miles himself. In many ways, he was a very likeable, young boy. But at other times, perhaps realistically, he came off as a spoiled brat and it became hard to understand the patience with which the adult beings in this new world had for him when they were in the midst of a very trying war. My other struggle with Miles was his age. Nine years old is very young, and at times it was hard to buy-in to Miles’ inner voice and thought process that sometimes verged into what felt like an older child’s range, perhaps 12 or so. Ultimately, I still did enjoy Miles when I could get past these few distractions.

As for these side character, they also had varying mileage. The species we meet are creative, but there were a few stylistic choices that sat oddly, like a frog-like species called Rompun speaking French. But these choices may work better for young readers.

Speaking of young readers, some of these concerns, simple world-building, a lack of depth to certain narrative choices like Miles trip to this land and the relationships between the different species that make up this world, could be explained by the target audience of this book. Though it isn’t explicitly stated anywhere in the book description, I’m guessing that this book is aimed towards middle grade readers. In this case, some of these choices make more sense (in particular, in the end there were a few rather implausible, narrow escapes for our supporting cast) if Riddle was wanting to keep the tone of the book more light. However, I would also suggest that middle grade fiction should still be held to a similar high standard with regards to some of these choices. It is possible to add depth to a fantasy world and create positive, but more believable, outcomes to dangerous situations that is still approachable to middle grade readers.

All in all, I had a fun time reading this book, but feel that it is an example of middle grade fiction that might be received better by its intended age range, rather than adult readers. If you have a middle grader who likes escapists fantasy, this might be the book for them!

Rating 6: A fun story, but had frustrating moments for me as an adult reader.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Wondrous” has just been published, so it isn’t included on any Goodreads lists yet. However, an obvious similar book would be “A Wrinkle in Time.” Both feature young protagonists thrust into new worlds with new alien beings.

 

 

 

Serena’s Review: “The School of Good and Evil”

16248113Book: “The School of Good and Evil” by Soman Chainani

Publication Info: HarperCollins, May 2013

Where Did I Get this Book: audiobook from the library!

Book Description: The first kidnappings happened two hundred years before. Some years it was two boys taken, some years two girls, sometimes one of each. But if at first the choices seemed random, soon the pattern became clear. One was always beautiful and good, the child every parent wanted as their own. The other was homely and odd, an outcast from birth. An opposing pair, plucked from youth and spirited away.

This year, best friends Sophie and Agatha are about to discover where all the lost children go: the fabled School for Good & Evil, where ordinary boys and girls are trained to be fairy tale heroes and villains. As the most beautiful girl in Gavaldon, Sophie has dreamed of being kidnapped into an enchanted world her whole life. With her pink dresses, glass slippers, and devotion to good deeds, she knows she’ll earn top marks at the School for Good and graduate a storybook princess. Meanwhile Agatha, with her shapeless black frocks, wicked pet cat, and dislike of nearly everyone, seems a natural fit for the School for Evil.

But when the two girls are swept into the Endless Woods, they find their fortunes reversed—Sophie’s dumped in the School for Evil to take Uglification, Death Curses, and Henchmen Training, while Agatha finds herself in the School For Good, thrust amongst handsome princes and fair maidens for classes in Princess Etiquette and Animal Communication.. But what if the mistake is actually the first clue to discovering who Sophie and Agatha really are…?

Review: This book seemed to hit a peak a few years ago with everyone raving about it, and finally now, years later, I’ve finally gotten to it. I don’t read a lot of middle grade fiction, but this one, with its fun premises and, I’ll admit, very catchy cover seemed worth checking out!

This book is a bit tricky to review, now that I’m getting to it. I finished reading the book about a week ago and am only now writing the review. And that one week, I think, has made an impact on my opinion of the book. Either way, ultimately, I did very much enjoy the story. But with the extra time, I feel there are a few things that were a bit clunky and problematic about it.

I breezed through this story, guys. I mean, fast. Its biggest strengths are the exact things that particularly appeal to me: very creative world building, character-based stories, and a strong dash of wit. I loved all the ties to fairytales in this book, both the direct reference to Snow White, Jack and the Beanstalk, Beauty and the Beast and others, as well the way it poked fun at the generalities of these stories. In the school of Good, princesses must learn how to speak to animals and wait patiently for their princes to save them. In the school of Evil, witches must learn how to curse household items like apples and hairpins and uglify themselves to scare off heroes and heroines. The schools and their history and connection to fairytales were so much fun. Much of it was parody, but parody with heart.

There were also a lot of great characters in this story, other than just Agatha and Sophie, who I’ll get to in a moment. There was Tedros, the most popular prince in school, and son of the famed Arthur and Guenevere who struggles with his mother’s legacy and its impact on his relationship with the women around him. Sophie’s witch roommates, Hester, Dot, and Anadil are each great, particularly Hester whose badassery knows no bounds. The teachers for both school reminded me a lot of the professors from the Harry Potter novels. They are all quirky and teach particular classes. This is one area of the story that I wish there had been more of. The few classroom scenes we had were some of my favorites in the whole story.

And then there are Agatha and Sophie. There was so much I loved about these two. Their friendship is complicated not only by the fact that they are in different schools, but by the very nature of their own beings and their struggles to define themselves. Poor Agatha with her broken down self-esteem. And poor Sophie, trying so hard without realizing the huge mistakes she’s making at almost every step. Neither are simple characters, and I appreciated the time that the author gave to these two and the attention to the difficulties of growing up and recognizing the power we all hold to mold who we want to be.

Packed into this romp of a fairytale are a lot of messages, and some of them are handled better than others. As I said before, there is a lot of parody going on here. This, of course, opens the door for the parody to go unrecognized and for the more harmful aspects of some of these messages to stand as true. The author does a lot of work to speak to the fact that actions speak louder than looks, to the power of goodness and love, and many other very important points. But due to binary set-up of the story and the parallels placed between goodness/beauty and villainy/ugliness, it’s possible for some unwanted aspects to slip through. Ultimately, I feel that if the story is read in the tone that it is meant, much of this comes through very clearly. But this book might not be for everyone, due to this.

While I was able to get on board with many of these points, there was one that was a sticking point, even for me. I love stories about girls’ friendships, and at its core, that it was this is. There is a lot to be said for forgiveness and understanding in friendship, but there were a few too many times where this line was crossed far to completely to be simplified in this way. It is the same as romantic relationships, in this way: at a certain point, if you are being actively hurt by another person, that person is not your friend, even if they truly do have good feelings toward you. So, while I love the message of Agatha saving her friend through sheer will, forgiveness, and kindness, the story also, unfortunately, sets up a bad example of friendships in general. Through large portions of this story, this is not a healthy friendship. And, while we can sympathize for Sophie, it should not stand as an example that just because we (or Agatha) love a friend/boyfriend, that we should tolerate bad treatment with the hope that they will get better.

This last point is what has stuck with me through this last week of building up to this review. I sped through this book and it was wildly entertaining as I was reading. But with distance comes more clarity, and there were problematic aspects of it, as I mentioned. That said, I will definitely continue on with the series. However, I will keep my eyes open for how some parts of it are handled in the future, most notably, this friendship.

Rating 7: Really great world-building and a lot of great lessons about self-worth and self-esteem; unfortunately, lessened by some questionable portrayals of healthy friendships.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The School of Good and Evil” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Best Books About Special Schools” and “Fairy Tales in All Their Ways.”

Find “The School of Good and Evil” at your library using Worldcat!

 

Serena’s Review: “The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home”

18961360Book: “The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home” by Catherynne M. Valente

Publishing Info: Feiwell and Friends, March 2016

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: Quite by accident, September has been crowned as Queen of Fairyland – but she inherits a Kingdom in chaos. The magic of a Dodo’s egg has brought every King, Queen, or Marquess of Fairyland back to life, each with a fair and good claim on the throne, each with their own schemes and plots and horrible, hilarious, hungry histories. In order to make sense of it all, and to save their friend from a job she doesn’t want, A-Through-L and Saturday devise a Royal Race, a Monarckical Marathon, in which every outlandish would-be ruler of Fairyland will chase the Stoat of Arms across the whole of the nation – and the first to seize the poor beast will seize the crown. Caught up in the madness are the changelings Hawthorn and Tamburlaine, the combat wombat Blunderbuss, the gramophone Scratch, the Green Wind, and September’s parents, who have crossed the universe to find their daughter…

Review: I delayed it for a few months, but here we are at last, woefully at the last book in the “Fairyland” series. But there are two things bolstering my spirits after finishing this series. 1.) It ended on such a great note! Always a concern that somehow something so good will be bungled and tarnished forever by a whiff on the ending. And 2.) now that it has been finished, and finished so well, I can happily go out and purchase the entire series and re-read them to my heart’s content!

Per my usual review method for this series, I’m going to include some of my favorite quotes from the book. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a million times: the writing in this series is so beautiful and has to be its biggest selling point.

“One of the awful secrets of seventeen is that it still has seven hiding inside it. Sometimes seven comes tumbling out, even when seventeen wants to be Grown-Up and proud. This is also one of the awful secrets of seventy.”

We’ve watched September grow up throughout these books. If the theme of the entire series could be summed up, it would be: growing up is a terrible, onerous process and then once you get there, you realize it was all kind of a hoax to begin with. Throughout all of the books, I very much enjoyed Valente’s razor sharp views on childhood. It’s all too easy to let childhood morph into a time and place of wildflowers and carefree days, and as adults forget the truly awful parts about it. The helplessness, the lack of freedom, the unassuredness, the constant changes both in yourself and in how the world see/treats you.

“We have all of us got it jumbled up. You never feel so grown up as when you are eleven, and never so young and unsure as when you are forty. That is why time is a rotten jokester and no one ought to let him in to dinner.”

New to this book, we meet Septemeber’s parents and her Aunt more fully! The interlude chapters document their journey. It was particularly enjoyable reading about their experiences, both in Fairyland and as the ones who were left behind by a wandering September. We always hear about the kids who get swept off to magical lands, but nothing about the poor parents who are left missing their children. Further, the reminder that these same parents and adults were once children and had adventures of their own.

“The Land of Parents is strange and full of peril.”

While Hawthorne and Tamburlaine do play a role in this story, it was again September’s story and her friends that we follow throughout the book. However, Blunderbuss, the combat wombat, plays a much larger role than I had expected and it was awesome. She is by far the best new addition to group from the last few books. Her acerbic wit and blunt way of speaking often provided the most hilarious bits of the story. And her contribution to the ending was as surprising as it was welcome.

“You gotta be nice to strangers even when they are the worst, because they don’t know you well enough to understand how shut your big face can mean I’ve missed you more than the whole world can know.”

And, finally, I cannot end this review without talking a bit about my darling pairing of September and Saturday. I have to say, this was my biggest concern about the story and one of the reasons I held off reading this book for so long. How could this be resolved in a way that wasn’t going to be heart breaking somehow? And, while the ending wasn’t anything like I could have expected, it was so, so satisfactory. So, go forth dear readers without fear on this account!

“The tales lovers tell each other about how they met are hushed and secret things. They change year by year, for we all meet many times as we grow up and become different and new and exciting people–and this never stops, even for a minute, even when we are ninety.”

I really can’t rave enough about this book. While “The Boy Who Lost Fairyland” was very good, it did feel like a step away from the Fairyland books that I had come to love. So I was a bit concerned when starting this one that maybe the magic had worn off just a little. But this book comes roaring back, and I would say it most closely rivals my love of the first book in the series. When/if I have children, this series will definitely be making an appearance on the must-read-aloud list. If you like fantasy, especially of the sweet and nonsensical kind, ala “Alice in Wonderland,” don’t miss out on this series!

And with that…

“Endings are rubbish. No such thing. Never has been, never will be. There is only the place where you choose to stop talking. Everything else goes on forever.”

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Rating 9: An amazing story on its own, but also an unexpected and poignant ending to the series as a whole.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home” is included on this Goodreads list: “own the Rabbit Hole in Children’s Fantasy” and Best Chapter Books for Young Girls

Find “The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home” at your library using Worldcat!

Previous Reviews: “The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making” and “The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There,” and “The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two” and “The Boy Who Lost Fairyland”

Bookclub Review: “Revolution”

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We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last year and a half. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is “Across the Decades,” we each drew a decade and had to select a book that was either published or set in that decade.

For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for bookclub. We’ll also post the next book coming up in bookclub. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own bookclub! 

Book: “Revolution” by Deborah Wiles

Publishing Info: Scholastic Press, May 2014

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: It’s 1964, and Sunny’s town is being invaded.  Or at least that’s what the adults of Greenwood, Mississippi, are saying. All Sunny knows is that people from up north are coming to help people register to vote.  They’re calling it Freedom Summer.
 
Meanwhile, Sunny can’t help but feel like her house is being invaded, too.  She has a new stepmother, a new brother, and a new sister crowding her life, giving her little room to breathe.  And things get even trickier when Sunny and her brother are caught sneaking into the local swimming pool — where they bump into a mystery boy whose life is going to become tangled up in theirs.
 
As she did in her groundbreaking documentary novel COUNTDOWN, award-winning author Deborah Wiles uses stories and images to tell the riveting story of a certain time and place — and of kids who, in a world where everyone is choosing sides, must figure out how to stand up for themselves and fight for what’s right.

Kate’s Thoughts

So “Revolution” is part of a series called the “Sixties Trilogy”. A chunk of our bookclub read the first in the series, “Countdown”, in our Children’s Literature class in grad school, and I was wondering if “Revolution” was going to need “Countdown” to serve as a context and foundation. But I was pleasantly surprised to see that a reader could easily skip over “Countdown” and read “Revolution” first if they so chose. While I did enjoy “Countdown” (which is about a girl living on an army base during the Cuban Missile Crisis), I actually enjoyed “Revolution” a bit more. “Revolution” takes on one of the most important and tumultuous times from the 1960s, Freedom Summer in Mississippi. Like “Countdown” this book is both a novel and a documentation of the time period through photos, quotes, and documents. There are many photos of African Americans in Mississippi and the SNCC volunteers, along with biopic sections and influential quotes and song lyrics from civil rights leaders and activists. Being able to juxtapose the actual people in the movement along with the characters in the story and their progressions was incredibly powerful, and I think that this book would be very good to use in tandem with history classes when studying this time period and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The characters are fictional, but portray two different experiences of teenagers at this time. The first, and most prominent, perspective is that of Sunny. She’s about to turn thirteen, adjusting to a new stepmom and two new step siblings, and is becoming more aware of her surroundings, specifically the tensions in her community. She yearns for adventure and to learn, and is drawn to the Freedom Righters and activists that are ‘invading’ her hometown of Greenwood, Mississippi. I felt that Sunny was a well written and believable tween girl, who thinks that she knows everything and that she knows what the world is like. She is close to her step brother Gillette, but resents her stepmother Annabelle, still holding out hope that her mother will eventually come back for her, even though she left her and her father Jamie when she was just a baby. This book is from Sunny’s perspective, so we explored the opinions of those around her through her eyes. We see her Meemaw who just can’t understand why the ‘negroes’ are being so ‘uppity’ when they were so ‘happy’ up until now. We see her great Uncle Vivian, who is a jolly older man who loves his grand niece, but harbors serious racist views. And we see Annabelle, who is seen as meek and weak by Sunny (or at least unapproachable), but is in actuality an activist with deep convictions and devotion to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Civil Rights Movement. Our other perspective is that of Raymond, a fourteen year old African American boy who is inspired by the galvanization of his community and the Freedom Righters who have come to his part of town. He goes from covert acts of defiance (like sneaking into the segregated swimming pool after hours) to blatant acts of rebellion, standing up for his rights in light of the Civil Rights Act, and facing violence from angry whites in the community.

I liked both of these perspectives, but I think that it’s a damn shame that the dominant perspective was that of the white girl. While Raymond did gets sections of his POV, this book was very much about Sunny and her discovering the evils of racism in 1964 Mississippi. It’s a story that’s been told before, over and over again, and I had gone in hoping that this was going to be more about the African American perspective. I was glad to see that the documentary sections of this book did have a lot of that POV, but even then there were three well drawn out bio sections of various important figures in the Civil Rights Movement, and two of them were of white people. Like, really?

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Overall, though, I did really like “Revolution”. I think that it’s a valuable resource and I feel that it was well written. I am also really really REALLY intrigued by what the final book in the trilogy will be about. I’m thinking it’s gonna be ‘Nam. Which is going to hurt like a bitch.

Serena’s Thoughts

As one of the aforementioned classmates in the Children’s Literature class that read the first book in this series, “Countdown,” I had a good understanding of what I was getting into with this book. While I liked “Countdown” well enough, what sold me on the book was the slick way the author incorporated real news articles, ads, and images from the time, creating a fictional story and a documentary style narrative side-by-side. While I wasn’t blown away by the story in that book, I was truly impressed by this take on historical novels, especially for middle grade readers.

I think here, in “Revolution,” she really comes into her own with this style. Even more so than “Countdown,” I feel like the historical documents and articles really added to the story. I was fascinated by what she chose to include, how the placement of certain items aligned with the facts of the fictional narrative, and just by the stylistic choices that were made in how, and what, was presented.

I also was more invested in the fictional story as well. I thought Sunny was a brilliant character and witnessing the events of Freedom Summer through her eyes was a very interesting choice. I especially appreciated seeing the many adults’ reactions to events as seen through Sunny’s perspective, both her stepmother who she initially dismisses but learns to appreciate, as well as her Uncle Vivian who’s love of her is unquestionable but has opinions and views that are less than praise-worthy.

I also very much enjoyed Raymond’s sections and the voice and perspective that he offered. While Sunny did get the majority of the narrative, Raymond’s portions were equally important when fleshing out the full story.

While I agree with Kate that it would have been preferable to have more from Raymond’s character, I’m going to play a bit of a devil’s advocate role here. I don’t remember if this came up with regards to this particular series and “Countdown,” but in the same Children’s Literature class, we discussed writers of different racial/cultural backgrounds writing across racial/cultural lines. There can not, and I believe, should not, be any right or wrong answer to this question, nor a hard and fast rule with regards to this. But I would surmise that the reason Sunny’s perspective was given more weight might have to do with, perhaps, a sense of imposition that could have arisen from Deborah Wiles, a white woman, writing this story primarily from the perspective of a young African American boy. I have no idea whether or not this was the case. Just goes to show how challenging it can be to be an author and write about tough subjects like these! All the more power to her, though, for tackling the subject, and discussions like this are always important.

Overall, I, too, found myself enjoying this book even more than I did the first in the series. The documentary style elements were even stronger I felt, and I was more connected to the characters in the fictional story.

Serena’s Rating 8: A really great combination of fiction and documentary. I would strongly recommend this to any middle grader with an interest in history (or to a classroom teacher who’s looking to pair some fiction with a lesson plan on this time period).

Kate’s Rating 8: Though I feel like there weren’t enough voices or perspectives from the African American POV, I did like the story and found the historical content incredibly fascinating and valuable.

Bookclub Questions:

1.) There are a lot of images/documents/quotes included in this story. Did any stand out to you? Why?

2.) Did you connect with the characters of Sunny and Raymond? With one more than the other?

3.) This book would pair well with a class that is learning about this era in time. Are there any particular issues/scenes/thoughts that are expressed that would perhaps be more challenging and need discussion when reading with children? How would you approach these discussions? Are there things that weren’t addressed?

4) What did you think of Sunny’s relationship with her stepmother Annabelle? Did Annabelle’s characterization surprise you in any way? What about her relationship with her father Jamie?

5) Did you learn anything new about Freedom Summer in this book that you hadn’t known before? Do you think that “Revolution” did a good job of bringing up new issues that some of us may not be as familiar with?

Reader’s Advisory:

“Revolution” is included on these Goodreads Lists: “Middle Grade Fiction Set in the 1960s”, and “Black Lives Matter: Kids”.

Find “Revolution” at your library using WorldCat.

The Next Book Selection: “West with the Night” by Beryl Markham