“Boots on the Ground: America’s War in Vietnam” by Elizabeth Partridge

“Boots on the Ground: America’s War in Vietnam” (Viking 2018) by award winning author Elizabeth Partridge is a great read for all adults—young and otherwise.

If you grew up in the 60s or 70s, you can follow the history and marvel at your junior high (elementary, high school or college) understanding of the events.

How do you organize a book about this complex politically shameful war? Partridge follows each American President—Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford. None wanted to be the first president to lose a war. They were winners, not losers. But American and Vietnamese boys were dying by the thousands.

Interspersed throughout the President-sections are chapters following diverse selection of individuals “on the ground” or “in country.” We follow a gung-ho Hispanic foot shoulder who enlisted for a year-long stint early in U.S. involvement, 1965-1966. His aim was to leave behind gangs and drugs to get on the straight and narrow. You see him and his buddies in impossible situations, seeing friends die, getting drunk and stoned back at base to alleviate the pain of it.

A mixed-race “dirt poor” machine gunner from Selma, Henry Allen, had been a civil rights worker, a member of SNCC registering black voters—a disciple of Martin Luther King, Jr. and nonviolence. Once drafted he had to decide to shoot or disobey orders and be court-martialed.

Martin Luther King Jr. claims a powerful chapter, as “protestor” to the war, and leader of the Civil Rights Movement. Dr. King, in spite of his work with LBJ on black rights and getting the Civil Rights Act signed in 1964, followed his conscience to the monstrous dismay of LBJ. MLK said, “If I am the last, lone voice speaking for non-violence, that I will do.”

A medic is haunted by those he cannot save. A young infantryman says, “I was ready for combat, but I wasn’t ready to see people die.”

A Japanese American Green Beret is called a “gook” by fellow soldiers, and assumed to be an enemy spy by some. After his year in Vietnam he is relieved to go home but suffers the classic survival guilt. Why did I survive?

Country Joe McDonald, an early veteran of the war later became a protest singer. Largely by happenstance, filling in at the famous Woodstock Music and Peace Festival, he sang “And it’s one, two, three, What are we fighting for? Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn, Next stop is Vietnam; And its five, six, seven, Open up the pearly gates . . .” It became an anti-war anthem.

Lily Lee Adams, an Asian-American nurse and war protester, was tricked by a recruiter to serve in Vietnam. She treated “blown up” boys, from both our side and the Viet Cong North.

There’s a chapter for a young Vietnamese refugee and her family attempting to escape the country when America pulled out in 1975 and the Communists of North Vietnam rushed in.

All these soldiers speak of the distaste with which they were met on their return home—another reason for American shame—and why it’s so important to read this award-winning book.

 

Patricia Hruby Powell is the author of the award winning Josephine; Loving vs Virginia; and Struttin’ With Some Barbecue among others         talesforallages.com

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“Hey, Kiddo” by Jarrett J. Korosoczka

“Hey, Kiddo” (Graphix/Scholastic 2018) is a graphic novel and a memoir by author/illustrator Jarrett J. Krosoczka. Its subtitle, “How I Lost My Mother, Found My Father, and Dealt with Family Addiction,” is a pithy description of this important, page-turning book.

Jarrett was raised by his grandparents who drank heavily and smoked constantly. But they loved him dearly. His absent mother, a heroin addict, wrote him heart-felt notes and occasionally showed up for visits, but always missed the big moments, like his graduation, in spite of her promises.

His working-class grandparents raised five of their own children, the younger ones overlapping Jarrett’s time with them. The grandparents scraped together money to send their grandson to comic-making classes.

One of the more poignant scenes has Jarrett not notifying his grandparents of his eighth grade graduation ceremony. Of course they discover this and are understandably crushed. When his young aunt, Holly, expresses her concern, thirteen-year-old Jarrett rectifies the matter, feels deep shame, and the entire family attends the ceremony. Clearly the whole family—barring his mother and father—was raising the kid.

The author’s unwavering honesty is what gives this story its depth—along with the unusually accurate cartoon depictions of the entire “cast.” The renderings of Jarrett at all his various ages, up to about eighteen, are remarkable. There are photos of his grandparents as part of Krosoczka’s Ted Talk linked to his website, studiojjk.com, and his renderings of them are right on. But even before I saw the photos of his grandparents, I knew from Jarrett’s cartoons exactly what they looked like.

The author outlines how art saved him. He says, “When I was a kid, I’d draw to get attention from my family. In junior high, I drew to impress my friends. But now I draw to survive.”

He tells us that his mother started using when she was 13. Krosoczka heard the stories. “She’d walk into a store with a trash bag, fill it with batteries, and then run out of the store—selling the batteries on the black market to fuel her addiction.” She stole from Joe and Shirl, her parents and Jarrett’s grandparents. She even stole her mother’s diamond ring, and sold it to feed her habit. She’s a mess.

In his early years, Krosoczka never considers his biological father—doesn’t even know his name. But in his teen years, that changes. Jarrett finds him and now he has a relationship with him.

It’s a heart breaking story, yet sweet and uplifting, because Krosockzka finds his way.

This book was a Finalist for the National Book Award for Young Readers. Wow!

 

 

Patricia Hruby Powell’s most recent book is Struttin’ With Some Barbecue: Lil Hardin Armstrong Becomes the First Lady of Jazz.   talesforallages.com

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“The Truth As Told By Mason Buttle” by Leslie Connor

The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle

“The Truth As Told By Mason Buttle” (HarperCollins/Katherine Tegen 2018) by Leslie Connor is the story of a lovable misfit. Not only is he a gigantic seventh grader, but he is sweaty beyond belief. He changes T-shirts throughout the day and mops up his forehead with paper towel and bandanas. What’s worse, his best friend Benny died mysteriously.

Mason has told the police lieutenant countless times what he experienced with Benny on that fateful day, but Lieutenant Baird keeps coming back for more information. The reader knows that Baird doesn’t believe Mason, but Mason doesn’t understand that. And people keep giving Mason that “so-sad” look. Mason can’t read or write but he does have support from the school counselor—wonderful Ms. Blinny.

Ms. Blinny gives Mason all the time he needs, a place to escape, and a computer program that lets him speak his story as it is typed out. Everyone in school should have a facility and a counselor like Ms. Blinny. Her room is a refuge for anyone who needs it.

And Mason has support from his Grandma and Uncle Drum who raise him in the “crumbledown,” their old house on the apple orchard. The family of three are grieving for Mason’s mother and the adults have lost hope. They’re having to sell off orchard land to make ends meet and developers are building houses beyond the woods and all over their sight lines.

Living in one of those new houses is Matt Drinker who bullies Mason mercilessly. But Matt has a fabulous dog, Moonie, who Mason loves and dog sits. Thank heavens Mason makes a friend in the funny wise Calvin Chumsky who moves into one of the new houses up the hill. Calvin brings out the best in Mason and the two find a hideaway on the property, just as Mason and Benny had in the woods.

Bully Matt and his crony Lance fling apples at Mason and Calvin as they all get off the school bus together. Big sweet Mason and tiny brainy Calvin are reminiscent of Steinbeck’s Lenny and George in “Of Mice and Men.” But this is wholly Mason’s story.

Whenever Lieutenant Baird comes around, Mason sees dark green fog oozing into his field of vision. When he sees green, he believes it’s bad luck following him. Grandma and Drum try to protect Mason, but they’ve given permission to let the police speak to him, feeling completely confident in his honesty. Mason sees pink when he and Calvin chalk prehistoric animals on their hideaway walls—like the ones in the Lascaux Caves in France. Seeing colors that corresponds to emotions is called synesthesia.

Should Mason tell the police about their hiding place? He swore not to. And he’s loyal, but he wonders. He tells the computer program at school, “I feel stupid. I feel dangerous. Makes me scared to be me. The way I am. Because what can you do about that. Nothing.” What happens is believable, honest, satisfying, and hopeful.

This fabulous book was a finalist for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. Try not to read the flap text, which gives a monstrous spoiler. Why did they do that?

 

 

Patricia Hruby Powell’s newest book is Struttin’ With Some Barbecue: Lil Hardin Armstrong Becomes the First Lady of Jazz        talesforallages.com

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“Poet X” by Elizabeth Acevedo

Xiomara’s strict and ultra Catholic mother fears for her daughter’s virtue. Sexy curvaceous Xiomara seems to be doing pretty well taking care of herself. Males of all ages have been muttering, whispering, grabbing at her for a few years now. Of course she’s angry. Anger serves her well.

Fifteen year old Xiomara lives in Harlem with her problematic Dominican-American parents in “Poet X” (Harper Teen 2018) by slam poet champion Elizabeth Acevedo. Acevedo’s poems tell the story with explosive energy and powerful insights.

Xiomara protects her smaller weaker brother, Xavier, who she calls Twin. Xiomara says, “My brother was birthed a soft whistle:/quiet, barely stirring the air, a gentle sound. But I was born all the hurricane he needed . . .” Twin goes to a “fancy genius school” while Xiomara makes her way in public school that’s fed by students of five boroughs. “I walk through metal detectors, and turn my pockets out,/and greet security guards by name,/ and am one of hundreds who every day are sifted like flour through the doors.”

Xiomara’s father once had a reputation as a womanizer, but ever since the birth of his twin children, he’s been on the straight and narrow, if emotionally distant. “Just because your father’s present/ doesn’t mean he isn’t absent.”

Mamí will allow no dating. Xiomara, who objects, says to her best friend, the more conservative Caridad, “I’m just saying. I’m ready to stop being a nun. Kiss a boy, shoot. I’m ready to creep with him behind a stairwell and let him feel me up.” Caridad responds, “Learn yourself some virtue.” Acevedo packs a lot into Xiomara’s insight, without preaching: “I’m afraid of my mother so I listen to what she says. Caridad genuinely respects her parents.”

The twins and Caridad attend Catholic Confirmation classes, but Xiomara is not sure she believes. She asks, “ . . . what’s the point of God giving me life/ if I can’t live it as my own?/ Why does listening to his commandments/ mean I need to shut down my own voice?” Why have faith “in the father/ the son/ in men/ and men are the first ones/ to make me feel so small.”

And then a boy, Aman, is assigned to be her lab partner in biology. And her English teacher urges her to attend Poetry Club. But Poetry Club meets during Confirmation class. First she begins skipping Confirmation class to meet up with Aman who loves rap music and loves Xiomara’s verse. And respects her. Mamí finds out and that’s a very bad scene.

Now Xiomara skips Confirmation class to attend Poetry Club and her life changes. She’s found what she needs. And the reader is delighted that this bright talented insightful woman has found her way. The story is inspiring. The writing is insightful. It’s no wonder this is the 2018 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature winner as well as the Boston Globe Horn Book Fiction winner. It’s bound to win more major accolades.

 

Patricia Hruby Powell is author of Struttin’ With Some Barbecue: Lil Hardin Armstrong Becomes the First Lady of Jazz; Loving vs. Virginia; and Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker talesforallages.com

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Writing Tip – Metaphors and Similes

We are Okay

Metaphors and Similes

Metaphors

 A good metaphor makes my mind leap, flies me over a landscape, then, sets me down in a soft landing. Metaphors take “show-don’t-tell” to a higher level.

Consider Nina LaCour’s “We Are Okay” (Dutton 2017) (winner of the 2018 Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature). Marin, the protagonist says, “It was terrifying, the idea that we could fall asleep girls, minty breathed and nightgowned, and wake to find ourselves wolves.

If this were a werewolf story, this line would be clunky—prosaic. But it’s not a werewolf story, it’s realistic fiction. One day we’re children, then we fall in love, discover our sexuality and we become something wild and dangerous. Wolves. What a mind-soaring metaphor!

One dictionary defines metaphor as “a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable.”

There are famous frequently-quoted metaphors, such as Shakespeare’s, “All the world’s a stage,/ And all the men and women merely players./ They have their exits and their entrances . . .” from As You Like It. We enter at birth, play a child, a wife, a writer, a whatever, and then we exit in death. What kind of child? Writer? Whatever? It depends on your role. Because Shakespeare was a great thinker this is still a great observation of human life.

 

Cliché or Dead Metaphors

 

There are cliché metaphors, such as “it’s raining cats and dogs.” Obvious advice would be, avoid those clichés. But that’s too simple. Speaking as a person who likes to bend rules, what if you have a character who speaks in lots of clichés because he’s annoying; or a character on the spectrum who is trying to make the non-literal more literal. She piles up metaphor clichés. That’s sort of fun. And funny. She says, “I’m the black sheep of the family. My brothers eat sausage but I eat kale.” “I tried to sneak out of the party, but I stepped in the ice bucket and got cold feet.” “My dad ate so many kettle chips, watching TV, that he turned into a couch potato.”

Or you could play with those cliché or “dead” metaphors and say, “it’s raining rats and frogs.” Or you could develop a gufus or simply hyper-creative character who gets clichés wrong and says, “I’m the purple sheep of the family.” “I got luke-warm feet.” My dad is a “couch rutabaga.” Old metaphors are fun to play with to develop characters or show a character’s quirkiness, creativity, or humor.

 

Sustained Metaphors

Not only can a metaphor be a word or a phrase, it can be sustained in an on-going passage. Lilli de Jong (Doubleday 2017) by Janet Benton is an adult book, but could definitely be read as a young adult novel. Besides which, the great Richard Peck (RIP) said “We write by the light of every story we have ever read.” You’ve heard it before: Read everything—in and out of your genre. Read the best.

Anyway, Lilli (de Jong) is a young Quaker woman in 1890 Philadelphia who gets pregnant and is abandoned by her fiancé. She gives birth in a home for unwed mothers, and is pressured to give up her child and never look back. She says,

“I consider the lie that will underpin my own life. . . We each have our own version of that lie. It’s the currency with which we buy our return ticket to society.”

The lie is “currency.” That’s the metaphor. Then Lilli has an epiphany. She sees herself on the deck of a boat for which she has just purchased passage. A wave pulls her overboard. She can breathe underwater. She feels ecstatic. A lie would buy her passage into society, but when she’s washed overboard she envisions a different life path. This path has her consider keeping her child.

Several pages later, still speaking of the lie, it becomes a simile, first cousin to the metaphor. “The lies spread like a layer of lard beneath my skin.” More about similes in a moment, but can’t you just feel that lie under your skin—its greasy distasteful existence enveloping you?

 

A metaphor can carry a whole book as it does in my own Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker (Chronicle 2014). In fact an earlier title was “Vive la Volcano: Josephine Baker.” In the end, I kept the sustained metaphor, but not the title. On the first page, Josephine “erupted into the Roaring Twenties/—a VOLCANO.” When Josephine experienced rioters—whites against blacks—cross into her neighborhood . . .

 

Fear grasped hold of her heart

and squeezed tight

the core of a volcano.

Anger heated and boiled into steam,

pressing HOT

in a place DEEP IN HER SOUL.

Later she’d let the steam out

in little poofs.

POOF!

a funny face.

That used to be fear.

POOF!

She’d mock a gesture.

That used to be anger.

She’d turn it into a dance.

AH, VERY WITTY.

 

That volcano metaphor runs through the story. “Deep-trapped steam FLASHED and WHISTLED.” She slid like “BLACK LAVA.” “Sparks flew.” In earlier drafts, I’d used similes instead of metaphors, saying Josephine was like a volcano. But in a SCBWI workshop, editor Carolyn Yoder of Calkins Creek, suggested using metaphor to give the piece more muscle. She was right. (Going to workshops and receiving critiques is an important part of the learning process).

 

Similes

Using simile—a comparison of one kind of thing to another, using like or as—is pretty fun, too. I’ve often thought of similes as slightly prosaic metaphors, but they can be powerful ways to “show.”

Sheila Turnage in her Newbery Honor book, Three Times Lucky (Dial 2012) has Mo say, “my stomach rolled like a dead carp.” Disgusting. Funny. Perfect. Or she describes a boy walking toward a pretty girl, “like he was sleep walking.” Can’t you see the smitten guy, too young to have learned to mask his desire, floating in puppy love? Many men never learn to mask their desire. Consider the hilarious Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine (Penguin 2017) by Gail Honeyman. About a 35 year old man, Eleanor says, “He couldn’t take his eyes off Laura, I noticed, apparently hypnotized rather in the manner of a mongoose before a snake.” “In the manner of” is the “like” or “as” in this simile.

 

In the picture book Free as a Bird: The Story of Malala by Lina Maslo (Balzer & Bray 2018), the title is a simile. In the story Malala’s father says, “Malala will be free as a bird!” This, of course, is the story of the Pakistani girl whose government forbade education for girls. After recovering from the attempt made on her life, Malala has spoken around the world for all girls (and boys) about their right to be educated. Her father’s wish for her daughter came true. She is free as a bird.

 

Similes are a great exercise to use in the classroom. One of the finest I’ve encountered was in a 4th grade classroom from a “naughty” boy. We were brainstorming on various similes. I requested a simile for, “The man is as bald as ____ .” A boy answers, “A light bulb.” Perfect. Not only is a light bulb fuzz-free, it’s shaped like a head. So it gives us a very accurate visual. Huzzah for the naughty boy. Of course, as light bulbs have become spirals, this particular simile has a limited shelf life or might have to be relegated to historical pieces—in the waning days when we use light bulbs shaped like heads.

 

Personification

A personification is an implied metaphor—the attribution of a personal nature or human characteristic to something nonhuman—as is used in Matt Killeen’s Orphan Monster Spy (Viking 2018). In 1939 Germany, Sarah is a young blond Jewish girl spying in an elite Nazi girl’s school. Sarah speaks of her longed for safety and says, “Sarah seized on this longing and strangled it, squeezing its pitiful and pathetic neck. She was not safe.” This unattainable desire for safety (non-human) is made human by giving it a neck that she must squeeze and strangle. Pretty cool.

Emily Dickinson famously said,  “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” That’s how I feel about a great metaphor. And great similes. After all, metaphors, similes, personification are all poetic devices.

 

Stretch us in your writing. Take us somewhere new, somewhere we’ve never been before—and perhaps you the writer has never been before. I love it when a writer makes me see something that I’ve always known but never articulated. Metaphors can do that. Make your readers leap. Make them feel the top of their heads were taken off.

 

 

 

First published in The Prairie Wind, the newsletter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, Illinois.  https://illinois.scbwi.org/prairie-wind-2/

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“The Journey of Little Charlie” by Christopher Paul Curtis

Charlie Bobo is an oversized twelve-year-old boy, the son of sharecroppers living in 1858 South Carolina in “The Journey of Little Charlie” (Scholastic 2018) by three-time Newbery Medalist Christopher Paul Curtis. Because Curtis is African American and has always written black characters, I was taken aback when Little Charlie bartered with the sheriff.

Eventually, you catch on. Charlie is white. Curtis has him speaking in dialect, which is slightly challenging for the reader. Fortunately, he lightens his touch once the boy’s voice has been established. And we get Curtis’s overall humor throughout.

Charlie describes his huge strong father, Pap, laying ax to tree when the ax head flies off and gashes Pap’s head. “Pap’s backbone went ramrod stiff, standing him straight as a soldier . . . then keeled o’er backward. . . Didn’t nothing bend on him; he jus’ falled straight back like his foots was hinged to the ground.” And the sheriff tells Little Charlie: “[you] look like a man and a half. It’s easy to forget you ain’t nothing but a boy.”

Charlie’s Pap is dead, his sharecropping mother can’t get out of bed, and the overseer, Cap’n Buck, arrives to say they owe him $50. Buck insists Charlie come with him—as pay back—to round up some “darkies” who he says stole $4000 from the Tanner plantation. Poor Charlie says, “I ain’t never been more’n ten mile from Possum Moan.” In South “Caroliney.”

But off Buck and Charlie ride on horseback up to Michigan. Not only is Buck just about the cruelest human you can imagine, he hasn’t bathed in what seems like years. He stinks bad.

Charlie might seem a trifle dim, but he’s learning fast out in the wild. He remembers Pap saying, “Even dimwits can teach you if you listen careful and pick out the kernels of corn from the horse cr*p they’s dishing out.”

Some pretty horrific things happen, but it’s tempered with humor. Buck finds the two “offending” escape slaves in Michigan, has them jailed, and discovers that they have a grown son in Canada who they could take back to the plantation. Buck and Charlie are advised to clean themselves up because Canada protects its black citizens. Buck has to go through repeated barber latherings before “the cap’n’s skin which went from being brown as any slave you’d see to all the sudden being so white you was tempted to shield your eyes. The whole top of his head looked like a huge chicken had laid a egg there and flewed off.”

You wait for Charlie to see the light of what he’s doing. But when? Canada is a challenge for the slave catchers, but they manage to capture their prey. Now they have three slaves to drive back south. The reader knows, and finally Charlie catches on—the $4000 the slaves were purported to have stolen is the price of their working bodies, their enslaved selves. Simple, impoverished, uneducated, white Charlie gets it: this is very unfair.

And Charlie acts heroically. It’s a simple and devastating story sprinkled liberally with great humor and told so well that it’s a National Award Finalist for 2018.

 

 

Patricia Hruby Powell is author of Struttin’ With Some Barbecue: Lil Hardin Armstrong Becomes the First Lady of Jazz; Loving vs. Virginia; and Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker talesforallages.com

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“How to be a Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals” by Sy Montgomery

Sy Montgomery, author of “How To Be a Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2018) shows that humans who love other species learn love, forgiveness, and grief, among other necessary human traits. The award-winning author writes for both children and adults and is a naturalist and adventurer. This is an adult book that young adults will love.

Starting with Molly, her childhood best friend, a Scottish terrier, Montgomery says, “I—standing there helplessly in the frilly dress and lacy socks in which my mother had dressed me—wanted to be just like [Molly]: Fierce. Feral. Unstoppable.” Molly inspired the author’s destiny.

Next Montgomery takes us to Australia where she studies three emus and is “caught by their grace and power and strangeness.” She says, “To begin to understand the life of any animal demands not only curiosity, not only skill, and not only intellect . . . but also my heart.”

Christopher Hogwood (like Wilbur in “Charlotte’s Web”) starts as a runt pig and grows into a 750 pound hog over the dozen years he lives with Montgomery and her husband in New Hampshire. “He taught us how to love . . . what life gives you. Even when life gives you slops.”

In the jungles of French Guiana in South America, on a National Geographic expedition, she learns to love a quarter pound spider, Clarabelle. “The huge spider thundered out of the hole . . . her head was the size of a small kiwi and her abdomen was as big as a clementine.” The reader learns: “If a leg was injured, she could pull it off, eat it, and grow a new one.” (She’s as loveable as Charlotte). And “The world . . . [is] rich with the souls of tiny creatures who may love their lives as much as we love ours.”

There’s a pure white ermine, who steals one of their Ladies—that is—a hen. But it is “ablaze with life,” and instead of anger, Sy feels awe.

Then there’s the first of three border collies, Tess, who ages until: “Never before had anyone relied on me so completely . . . loved me more deeply. And never before had I experienced grace so profound.” The love of a mother. And her grief at the loss of Tess and Chris the pig nearly brought her down.

But off she goes to the cloud forest of Papua New Guinea to study the elusive tree kangaroos, where she finds “the wildness that keeps us sane and whole.”

Sally is so different than Tess, the next border collie, but one accommodates the inevitable difference in personalities. “This is the gift great souls leave us when they die. They encourage our hearts. They leave us a greater capacity for love.”

Then there’s Octavia, a short-lived octopus at the Aquarium who endures a false pregnancy, loving and protecting her unfertilized eggs. The author says “love never dies, and love always matters.” “Love is the highest and best use of a life.”

Her present border collie, Thurber, teaches us, “You never know, even when life looks hopeless, what might happen next. It could be that something wonderful is right around the corner.”

You’re going to love this book.

 

Patricia Hruby Powell is author of Struttin’ With Some Barbecue; Loving vs. Virginia; and Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker talesforallages.com

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“The House in Poplar Wood” by K.E. Ormsbee

Felix and Lee Vickery, 13-year-old twin boys, live in “The House in Poplar Wood” (Chronicle Books 2018) by K. E. Ormsbee. The book opens with, “The last day of October was creeping into Poplar House. It came through fissures in the gables and mite-sized holes in the floorboards, bringing with it the scent of burnt oak branches.” If you guess that you’re entering an alternate universe—a spooky one, you’d be correct.

The boys live in the same house—but not together. On one side, Felix lives with his father, the town doctor. Father and son serve Death. Felix’s job as apprentice-in-training is to brew herb broths such as rose petals and nightshade as an antidote to flu. On his sixteenth birthday Felix will sign the contract to be Death’s apprentice. Felix may not go to school. In fact no one in town knows he exists.

On the other side of the house Lee lives with his mother, the town psychologist, and they serve Memory. As apprentice-in-training, Lee bottles memories of the townspeople. The bad memories are labeled Forget and the good ones Remember. Lee does go to school and whereas the boys’ mother and father cannot see each other, the boys are close and hang out daily.

Felix is blind in one eye—but this eye sees Death, tall and elegant in a black suit and top hat. Lee is deaf in one ear—the ear that hears Memory. Overall, Lee has a much gentler life than Felix who confronts Death frequently, whenever Death takes the soul of a patient—or when he punishes Felix for some wrongdoing. Both boys want a united family. But the “Agreement” denies them that.

A teenage girl, Essie Hastings, has just died in an accident by falling off Boone Ridge and into the gully. Gretchen Whipple, the second child of the town’s mayor, overhears her father discussing the matter and realizes this was no accident. Gretchen is a go-getter kind of gal and she’s going to get to the bottom of this. Gretchen’s father, the mayor is the town’s Summoner, and his job is to take care of the townspeople. But is he doing his job?

Gretchen isn’t even in line to be the next Summoner. Her rough-edged brother, Asa, as firstborn, gets the job. This irks Gretchen. She knows she can cast a spell, if they’d only teach her. The determined girl goes to Poplar House to see her classmate Lee and discovers the little-known Felix. After some ups and downs the three become allies, if not friends. Gretchen wants to know what happened to Essie Hastings and the twins want to break the Agreement, if possible.

Oh yeah, Death and Memory are Shades and so is Passion. It was Passion who got the boys’ parents together in the first place—and is probably responsible for the divided house.

I’m not normally drawn to fantastical stories, but this is so wonderfully spooky and so well written. Highly recommended.

 

 

Patricia Hruby Powell’s Struttin’ With Some Barbecue: Lil Hardin Armstrong Becomes the First Lady of Jazz (Charlesbridge) releases December 11, 2018 just in time for Christmas.     talesforallages.com

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“All That I Can Fix” by Crystal Chan

Ronney, fifteen years old, takes care of his little sister Mina. He repairs the damaged wall, reseals the driveway, and has the carpet changed because it’s soaked in blood. Why? His depressed father rarely gets out of his bedroom or even his pajamas, since he lost his job, and attempted suicide. And Ronney’s mother is busy supporting the family and popping pills to calm herself in “All That I Can Fix” (Simon Pulse 2018) by Crystal Chan. “We’re the mixed-race family with two helpless parents, the genius kid sister, and the fix-it son.”

Ronney’s world is falling apart in Makersville, Indiana. What’s more, a keeper of exotic animals has released them all—lion, cheetah, tiger, python, wolf, and others—then shot himself. Not only are the animals loose in town, but so are gun rights activists who say they need guns to protect themselves and gun control activists who are horrified by the pro-gun people shooting the animals. Adults clearly cannot be trusted here.

Ronney’s best friend Jello suggests a suburban safari to make his name as a wildlife photographer. Ronney, thinking this is childish, muses, “Maybe having normal parents means you get the privilege of being a kid.” Ronney’s mother “deemed [Jello] ‘a good influence on me,’ which illustrates her total lack of judgment.”

Ronney yearns for George, a girl on the valedictorian track. Ronney notes her problems: “It has to be pretty precarious, to have only perfection or the abyss as your two real options in life.” George allows Ronney to comfort her, but he’s not her boyfriend. That’s painful.

Then a mysterious little kid Mina’s age—about nine—starts following Ronney. The annoying little kid, Sam, wants Ronney to “fix” his broken family. Sam’s big brother Nick disappeared months ago. Sam sobs, “Like . . . the end of the world is upon us sob. And what could I do?” Ronney sees that “the love that [Sam] had for Nick was big enough to hold up the sky.”

Ronney used to feel that way about his dad, but after a year of disappointment, that big love for his father seems to have snapped off. When his father says, “My life had gotten too heavy.” Ronny calls him pathetic, a hypocrite, and “you’ll like the new carpet I just installed. . . don’t mess it up again.” Ronney’s cruel and honest, after all he’s been through.

The animals have killed area livestock and family pets and now they’re going after people. Gun-toting residents are going after the animals. Everything is a mess and it’s pretty dark. Yes, that shooter might have saved a woman’s live, but “forty-four bullets for one cheetah was a bit much.”

The boy repartee of sarcastic profane Ronney with Jello is a riot. Take my word for it and read the book. It’s wickedly funny. But loyalty and love prevail. Complicated issues invite discussion. This is a winner.

 

Patricia Hruby Powell is author of Loving vs. Virginia; Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker and the forthcoming Struttin’ With Some Barbecue   talesforallages.com

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Wiki: “9 Wonderful Historical Novels for Young Readers”

“Getting kids interested in history isn’t always easy. Reading dry textbooks and memorizing dozens of dates can make even the most exciting era seem boring. Luckily, historical fiction has the power to bring the past to life. Kids and teens who read the nine novels listed here might find that they’re suddenly a lot more invested in history class.”

Watch 9 quick reviews of Wiki’s chosen historical novels. I look forward to reading those I haven’t read. The nine are:

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate

Beyond the Bright Sea

Hamilton & Peggy

The Woman in the Photo

The Dirty Cowboy

Loving vs. Virginia: A Documentary Novel on the Landmark Civil Rights Case

Navigating Early

The Last Suppers

The Dollmaker of Krakow

 

 

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