By Way of Introduction

This blog gathers together my reviews of speculative fiction books for kids and teens in which the central protagonists are multicultural. The reviews were originally published at my main blog, Charlotte's Library. I'm adding labels (a rather fraught process), so that people can find specific diversities...doubtless I"ll be tweeking them as I go.

This blog is a work in progress--I have well over 100 more reviews already written to add to it, and I hope I'll add many more new books, interviews, and other content about diverse books!

(also to come are links to other websites and blogs....)

Sunday, April 27, 2014

N.E.R.D.S.: The Cheerleaders of Doom, by Michael Buckley (2011)

N.E.R.D.S: The Cheerleaders of Doom, by Michael Buckley (Amulet Books, 2011, upper elementary/middle grade, 288 pages)

The N.E.R.D.S are a band of technologically enhanced kids, agents of a secret organization that has taken each members nerdy weakness, and made it into a super super power. In this third installment of the NERDS series, asthmatic Matilda, aka Wheezer, gets a chance to shine when a new disaster threatens to destroy not just the earth, but the whole multiverse. But Matilda isn't being asked to put her mad fighting skills and arsenal of super inhalers to work. Something much worse is in store for her--she has to become a cheerleader, infiltrate a crack cheering squad, and find the rouge NERDS agent responsible for the impending disaster...a girl named Gertie, once known as "Mathlete."

Gertie, desperate for the money she needs to create a new, beautiful, cheerleading self, has invented a device that allows her to travel to alternate versions of earth, and pilfer them at will. Now she is no longer a homely nerd; she is that wonderful, beautiful, bubbly thing--a top notch cheerleader. For Matilda to infiltrate the cheerleading squad, and crack Gertie's disguise, she's going to have to do the hardest thing she's ever done in her live--shuck her tough, grungy persona to become a smiling, perky, pompomed girl who whoops.

But in the meantime, there's another young mastermind at work--a criminal one. Former NERD Heathcliff "Choppers" Hodges doesn't really want to live the rest of his life in a mental institution for the criminally insane. He wants to take over the world (in an evil way)...and Gertie's invention might be just what he needs.

This is the first NERD adventure I've read, and I found myself nodding in agreement as I remembered all the reviews of the series recommending the books highly for the 8-10 crowd. There's humor, action, suspense, delivered in snappy style; there are cool gadgets and neat technology, such as would delight even young readers who aren't nerds themselves, and best of all, there are actually interesting characters giving weight to the somewhat goofy story.

In this case, Matilda is forced to confront questions of identity--the process of becoming a cheerleader requires her to consider why she had created her own tough girl identity, and challenges her preconceptions of cheerleaders. The result is a more tolerant, self-aware (but still tough) Matilda! It's a subtle enough message so that it doesn't grate on the reader's nerves, but it's enough to make this more than just fun fluff.

As an added bonus, the kids who comprise the N.E.R.D.S are, as you can see from the cover, a diverse bunch. Matilda, for instance, is Korean American.

Here's what I'm wondering--the first two books were told from the point of view of boy team members, and seem to be popular with boys. Now we have a girl central character, and Cheerleaders, no less! The (very doubtful) assumption that boys are reluctant to read about girls is all too prevalent...but I think the wacky zest of the series will have successfully captured it's young male readers, making that issue irrelevant in this case.

Here's another review at TheHappyNappyBookseller.

Breadcrumbs, by Anne Ursu (2011)

Breadcrumbs, by Anne Ursu (Walden Pond Press, Sept 27, 2011, ages 9-12, 320 pages)

If it weren't for Jack, Hazel would be unbearably alone. She and Jack are the best possible friends, and have been for years. But then the unthinkable happens--Jack no longer cares about her. Hazel's mom says its just something that happens when kids grow up, but Hazel knows there is more to it than that.

And so, when Jack disappears one snowy winter's day, taken by a woman in white in a sleigh, Hazel follows. In a fairytale world where metaphors become real, she risks everything to keep Jack from being frozen in the realm of the Snow Queen forever.

The first half of the book sets the stage for Hazel's journey, showing the reader in lovely, heart-aching words Hazel and Jack's friendship, and why it is so important to both of them. Jack makes fifth grade in a new school bearable for Hazel--though she fits in not at all, and is taunted by other kids, one quirky look from Jack gives her strength. But more importantly, with Jack, Hazel can be herself.

"Jack was the only person she knew with an imagination, at least a real one. The only tea parties he'd have were ones in Wonderland, or the Arctic, or in the darkest reaches of space. He was the only person who saw things for what they could be instead of just what they were. He saw what lived beyond the edges of the things your eyes took in. And though they eventually grew out of Wonderland Arctic space-people tea parties, that essential thing remained the same. Hazel fit with Jack." (ARC Page 21)

And when Hazel's dad left, Jack gave her his heart--a signed baseball, his most prized possession. Jack's mom is no longer there either, metaphorically speaking--she has become so depressed that she can no longer see him. So Hazel does her absolute best to make sure that she is there for him, making sure that he knows that someone still knows he is there.

And then he isn't. So Hazel crosses into the snowy wood to find him.

"Hazel had read enough books to know that a line like this one is a line down which your life breaks in two. And you have to think very carefully bout whether you want to cross it, because once you do it's very hard to get back to the world you left behind. And sometimes you break a barrier that no one knew existed, and then everything you know before crossing the line is gone.

But sometimes you have a friend to rescue. And so you take a deep breath and then step over the line and into the darkness ahead." (ARC pp 151-152)

And Hazel's adventures begin, in a frightening, magical world where every encounter has a story to it...a place from which almost no-one returns.

This is the sort of book that makes pictures in the mind to treasure. The sort of book best appreciated by those who already have all the stories they've ever read piled up in their own minds, those who sat, or sit, in fifth grade classrooms and stare out the window imagining that there is more out there than a parking lot (and get teased by classmates in consequence). Hazel's unhappiness with her life in the "real" world will call painful sympathy from that reader, and her journey into the world beyond the snowy woods will resonate most beautifully. Especially since Anne Ursu brings this part of her story to detailed, disturbing, lovely life, with words that fly of the page.

The first 150 or so pages, though, before Hazel sets off on her journey, are almost too sad to read. Hazel's unhappiness is all too sharp and clear. The pain of her father's betrayal, the pain of being a different sort of person from the kids around her, was hard reading. Part of her difference is that she was adopted from India, and her black hair and dark brown skin don't match her mother's light brown and white. But mostly she is different because she is Hazel, who has read and read until her mind is full of stories, who cannot find a kindred spirit among her classmates. Except, of course, for Jack.

So I suffered with Hazel during that first half of the book in the dismal winter of fifth grade, and it was a huge relief to set off into the woods! Suddenly things were real, and in color, and beautiful and deadly, and I wasn't reading a book anymore, but inside a story. And Hazel's determination to find her friend and bring him home made it a story with heart--both fierce and moving.

Highly recommended to imaginative book-lovers, who know just how important it is to find kindred spirits, especially those who don't mind reading a book that will make them ache for the central character....

Bansi O'Hara and the Bloodline Prophecy, by John Dougherty

Bansi O'Hara and the Bloodline Prophecy, by John Dougherty (Random House Children's Books, 2008) was tremendously enjoyable. Never once, while reading it, did I think "I would have enjoyed this so much as a child." I was too busy enjoying it as just me! As well as a zesty little plot, with a sympathetic heroine who's half-Indian (yay multicultural fantasy with non-whitewashed cover!), considerable humor, and dangerous Danger, it features two of the best older women characters (Bansi's granny and her granny's best friend) in children's fantasy that I can think of.

When Bansi O'Hara's Irish father and her Indian mother met and married, little did they know that they were bringing together the bloodlines of two legendary leaders of the Fair Folk, who had been exiled from the other world long ago. And naturally they'd never heard the prophecy about their union: "When the Blood of the Morning Stars, joined and flowing together at last, is returned to the scared earth as the light dies, then shall the power of Tir na n'Og awaken...And one who returns the blood to the land shall come into the inheritance of Derga."

[those of you who become skeptical when Ancient Prophecies come into play--do not be alarmed. Yes, it is the basis for the plot, but it doesn't take over the story]

In any event, when Bansi arrives in Ireland to visit Granny O'Hara at Midsummer, when the way between the worlds is open, quite naturally two factions (good and evil, as usual) are competing to be the returnees of the prophecy. On the good side, a mischievous pooka and a friendly brownie are guarding Bansi; on the bad side, a shapeshifting, evil wolf-boy is hunting her.

This is all very well and good--nothing too surprising. But what is surprising, adding just tons of fun to the story, is what happens when Granny O'Hara and her best friend become involved--beautiful little set pieces of comedy and snappy dialogue, and a wild ride in a Morris Minor Traveler to fairy land armed with a car jack and miscellaneous scrap metal.

And in the meantime, the danger grows as Bansi is captured by the dark side...and she has to find the courage to keep fighting (even though, and this is a good thing, she has no secret Specialness! Just pluck and determination!)

I did enjoy it awfully much, and I'm awfully glad I found about it through this post at Scribble City Central last April and took a chance on it!

Bridge of Time, by Lewis Buzbee (2012)

So this morning I had an actual time travel experience--I woke up and it was already eight thirty and we had missed the school bus, but then I really work up and had travelled back in time and it was only quarter to six. Sometimes time travel is a good thing.

For instance, as is the case in Bridge of Time, by Lewis Buzbee (Feiwel & Friends, May 2012, middle grade, 304 pages), time travel may be just what you need to help you cope with your parents' divorce, especially if you get to go hang out with Mark Twain in the past. This is what happens to best friends Joan Lee and Lee Jones. The coincidence of their names is just the tip of the iceberg of their close (non-romantic--they're in middle school still) friendship. And one horrible day another coincidence strikes--both their sets of parents announce they are splitting up.

The next school day just happens to be the class field trip, and Joan and Lee resign themselves to the boredom of yet another trip to the San Fransisco fort they'd seen a bazillion times already. But this time, they find themselves travelling back in time to 1864, which, what with the Civil War, is not a good year for being unauthorized visitors in a military fortification. Fortunately, the first person they meet is another person who has come unstuck in time--a friendly man named Sam Clemens (known, in the future, as Mark Twain), who gives them sanctuary.

Unfortunately, even Sam, helpful though he is, can't do anything about the violent racism against the Chinese inhabitants of old San Fransisco, and in fact there are a number of individuals who want to damage Sam in particular for his journalist work in exposing this racism. Joan, being Chinese, is in constant danger...

And on a more personal level, both Joan and Lee are deeply conflicted about going home--neither wants to go back to houses where the word "divorce" is still echoing in the air.

But unless they can fix their minds on sticking back in their own time, they'll be unstuck--passing through a multitude of various San Fransiscos (including a rather exaggeratedly beautiful Native American version). Fortunately, they each get to encounter their older selves, and are comforted thereby. But Sam is another problem--he is busily having a crisis of self-confidence, denying the future he's seen for himself as Mark Twain...

This one falls into two of my roughly delineated time travel categories--the Didactic Experience, and the Mechanism for Personal Growth. At first, what with all the attention paid to "this is San Fransisco in 1864" I found it hard to be deeply involved in the story, and was not sure I liked Joan and Lee (I got tired of the meaningful LOOKS (caps in the original) they kept exchanging). When they unstuck from 1864, the level of excitement picked up as they bounced through time, and the pages turned somewhat faster.

There's some humor, and a bit of mystery (just who is that mysterious man in black, and why is he following Sam around? Why isn't the author making more of him?), and a few mentions of pizza, enough to add a splash of middle grade reader appeal (although, perhaps, not quite enough to carry the book). And it might well resonate deeply with middle grade readers who are themselves feeling unstuck in their lives, particularly those whose parents, like Lee and Joan's, are splitting up.

If I were requiring seventh grade kids to read a historical fiction book, or if I were teaching about racism in the 19th century, I would probably put this one on the reading list. It's also the only time travel book I can think of in with a Chinese American protagonist, and I felt that Joan's experience confronted by the rascism of this particular past was nicely done. It's not one, though, that I'd strongly urge adult readers of time slip stories to try--it's just fine, but not desperately magical.

And having typed that, I realize that I have slipped through time again, and it is now almost seven, the bus leaves in 14 minutes, and my child is still asleep. Sigh.

The Book of Wonders, by Jasmine Richards (2012)

The Book of Wonders, by Jasmine Richards (HarperCollins, 2012, middle grade, 416 pages)

Thirteen-year-old Zardi longs to see the great wide world beyond her town. She loves the stories of adventure and magic that she manages to hear--not as many as she likes, because the sultan has banned all magic, and even all talk of it, from the kingdom of Arribitha. Disobey, and die. But Sinbad, the sailor, dared risk the sultan's wrath to tell his tales...and Zardi was there in the crowd along the waterfront, entranced.

So far Zardi has escaped the sultan's men, who are quick to break up crowds such as that, but since she is thirteen, a new danger looms. The sultan has a nasty habit of taking unmarried young women to be his praise singers, for a short term--and then killing them. It is not Zardi, though, who is taken, but her sister...

And so Zardi chops off her hair, dresses as a boy, and sets out into the world to find out if it the stories of an army of resistance to the sultan are true. With her goes her foster brother, Rhidan (abandoned as an infant), on a quest to find out the mystery of his own past. And fate leads them to Sinbad--storyteller, rouge, pirate, and charismatic leader of men. Whose mother just happens to be the daughter of a djinn, and a magic user in her own right.

When Zardi and Rhidan meet Sinbad's mother, Rhidan's own innate magic, the heritage of his mysterious father, is woken. And so, when Rhidan launches Sinbad's ship into a magical whirlwind to save it from the Sultan, a magical adventure begins, drawing on the adventures of Sinbad as told in the Arabian Nights, but combining them with the quest story of two young people seeking the magic and knowledge they need to set everything to rights.

The Book of Wonders is a good title for this--like the Arabian Nights, once things get going, the episodic adventures fall one after another like beads on a string, and just when seem things settled, another perilous encounter appears! If you are a reader who delights in one magical, dangerous, imaginative adventure after another, this is a book for you.

"The light bent and twisted. It grew arms and then legs, and Zardi gasped as a figure flickered into life beside her. It was a man who looked as if he were made out of green-tinted glass. He wore spectacles and had a neat, curling mustache and was no taller than her knee. A breath lodged in her thought. Could it be? Is he a djinni?

"You rubbed?" the man said in a dour voice, hovering up to eye level." (Page 220)

I myself would have liked a bit more, though--as readers of my blog have heard me say before, I prefer character to plot, and character here is definitely not as front and center. Although Zardi was reasonably real to me--brave, smart, and determined in the true middle grade fantasy way, Rhidan never came at all alive to me at all, and Sinbad, after a promising start that indicated interesting complexities of character, essentially faded out of the story.

By way of observation--sometimes, in fantasy books for "children," the writing and vocabulary can be complex and demanding. This is not the case here--Richards underlines her points, and keeps her sentences, for the most part, short and to the point. Which is either a good thing, or not so much of one, depending on the age, taste, and mood of the reader! But it does give the story a slightly younger vibe than some "middle grade" sff. And indeed, although there are some tense episodes of monster confrontation (those who don't like snakes, be warned--they play a scary role at one part), there's nothing here that pushes the story Young Adult-ward.

Although this story comes to a satisfying conclusion, many questions about Rhidan in particular are left unanswered--lots of room for a sequel.

Here's what I want to read next, though--Sinbad's original stories! I enjoyed picking up on many Sinbadian references, but I want to go back and see what I missed.

Other reviews can be found at Mundie Kids, The Book Monsters, The Book Cellar, and Michelle and Leslie's Book Picks

Edited to add: Here's an interview with Jasmine Richards at TheHappyNappyBookseller, who also has this review.

The Atomic Weight of Secrets, by Eden Unger Bowditch (2011)

The Atomic Weight of Secrets,  or The Arrival of the Mysterious Men in Black, by Eden Unger Bowditch (Bancroft Press, March, 2011, middle grade, 339 pages) is the first book of The Young Inventors Guild, a historical speculative fiction story about five brilliant children.  Their parents are extraordinary too, so much so that one day in 1903, when the mysterious men in black come calling, the parents, with no explaination, have to leave their children.   But the men in black have a plan for the children too, one that involves sending them off to their own special boarding school in rural Ohio.  There they are cared for by the loving Miss Brett (the first adult to ever read out loud to them--the brilliant parents were too busy being brilliant to have much time for their kids), a seemingly normal woman who's unable, or unwilling, to provide any answers....

Twelve-year-old Jasper Modest (a young inventor) and his six-year-old sister, Lucy (gifted with a perfect memory), were taken from London.  Nine-year-old Wallace Banneker, determined to follow in the footsteps of his family of African American scientists, inventors, and mathematicians, was taken from New York.  Twelve-year-old Noah Canto-Sagas, brilliant both mentally and musically, was taken from Toronto.  And the oldest child, the thirteen-year-old Faye Vigyanveta, taken from the luxurious home of her parents, Indian scientists, is fiercely determined to find out the secret of the Mysterious Men in Black who have torn apart their lives for no clear reason.

And they are indeed Mysterious.  "In black," for them, includes black tutus.  Black bear suites.  Black scarfs concealing their faces, which are shrouded by black sombreros, Easter bonnets, and the like.  All manner of grab bag bits of clothing, concealing them utterly.   And they are not exactly forthcoming to the children--which is to say, they don't say anything. 

Although the children's strange school is a virtual prison, and their weekend trips to loving foster mothers carefully orchestrated to make escape impossible, this bizarre situation is one where the children can thrive, becoming each other's first true friends.   All the delicious food they want, adult attention and love, and beautiful lab equipment.

Except that there is no getting around the fact that their parents are missing (and though they might have been distant, un-nurturing parents for the most part, this is still disturbing), the men in black are their jailers, and if they want answers, they are going to have to escape.  And being brilliant young inventors, the answer comes to them--they must build a flying machine...

This is a book that requires from its reader an acceptance of the bizarre.  The children's situation is like a dream, and the reader knows no more about the men in black then they do (although I, having read more science fiction than the kids have, soon had a theory....what do they actually look like, under all that black concealment???).

Acceptance is also required regarding the pacing of the book.  We meet all five kids just as they are about to try to escape from their bizarre situation.  But then the author goes back to the start of things, before the arrival of the men in black, but doesn't introduce us properly to all of the kids at once, instead, she doles out the introductions at intervals.  She doesn't rush it--we don't get Wallace Bannaker's back story, the last one, until page 182, which I found extreme.   So it wasn't until the final third of the book that I felt I had a really firm handle on the kids, and could really appreciate their interactions and character arcs.    Likewise, although the book starts with the escape plan getting underway, it then goes back to tell all the story up to that point.

So I read much of the book with a slightly uninvested feeling (though I liked the kids, enjoyed the details of their strange school life, and was curious to learn more about the mystery).  It was not till the story catches up to closer to where the book begins, with the great escape project well underway, that the pieces all clicked for me.   At that point, all the disparate gifts of the kids combine to make things really start humming, the tension grows, and the reader waits with baited breath for the Great Reveal....and realizes she's not going to get it.  Nope, no little wrapping up the plot threads here, just waiting for the next book...

Still, though I have reservations, it never occurred to me to put it down.  And I think it might work well for the right young reader--smart, lonely kids in particular! 

Archer's Quest, by Linda Sue Park (2006)

Archer's Quest, by Linda Sue Park (Clarion Books, 2006, middle grade, 159 pp)

Kevin is home alone, trying to muster enthusiasm for his homework, when...THWOCK! An arrow lifts off his baseball cap, and pins it to the wall.

"My arrow would end your life before you took a single step," says the strange man who has suddenly materialized in his room. "Do not even think of fleeing. And if you are armed, place your weapon on the floor. Now." (dialogue from p. 5)

Kevin, being a typical middle school kid, is not, in fact, armed. Even if he were, he would stand no chance against this stranger, who is none other than Chu-mong, founder of the largest of the ancient kingdoms of Korea, and one of the greatest archers of all time. Chu-mong had not intended to visit Kevin's house--some strange twist of chance and magic has brought him into the present. And now Kevin must help him return home, before the Year of the Tiger comes to an end the next day.

Kevin scrambles to use math, the Chinese Zodiac, his grandparent's stories of Korea, and a visit to a tiger in the zoo and to the local museum to help the archer return home, all the while guiding Chu-mong through the perils of 21st-century life. And Chu-mong in turn gives Kevin, himself Korean American, not only a tangible connection to the land of his ancestors, but the more practical ability to focus that underlies his own skills as a warrior.

Fast-paced (it all takes place in less than one day) and told with considerable humor, this story combines puzzle solving, history and legend, and the workings of the middle-school boy mind to great effect. Because it's set in the present, it is, I think, a more accessible type of time travel story than the sort where modern kids travel back to the past. The reader can easily imagine himself in Kevin's position, for instance, as Kevin tries to explain the workings of cars to the strange visitor who has just jumped behind a hedge on first seeing one.

I'd especially recommend this to the middle-grade kid who doesn't necessarily read fantasy. The ones who do read fantasy might well like it lots too, but they might feel that they are getting something more realistic than they had bargained for. This a testimony to Park's writing, in as much as she has made an impossible situation seem strangely convincing.

I'd also like to recommend this one to kids who are considering taking up archery. It should inspire them nicely.