Thursday, May 24, 2012

TURTLE IN PARADISE by Jennifer S. Holm

Holm, Jennifer S. Turtle in Paradise. Random House Children’s Books, 2011. ISBN-13: 9780375836909. $6.99. Newbery Honor Book.

Special Feature: Review by an elementary school student.

Turtle is an angry 11-year-old girl. She got her name from her mother, who said “You have a hard shell but a soft belly.” Turtle doesn’t believe that! Turtle thinks she is a tough girl because she hangs out with the Diaper Gang. The Diaper Gang is very funny. They have a lot of adventures with babies who have diaper rashes. Bean has a secret formula that is called cornstarch, but nobody knows what it is. As a reader, I was surprised that they went around taking care of babies, but it was very funny.

It's the year 1935, and Turtle moves to Florida to stay with relatives. Turtle meets many relatives whom she didn’t know about. The first relatives she meets are Aunt Minnie, Uncle Vernon, and four cousins. She then meets Nana Philly, the grandmother she thought was dead. Turtle also meets a man named Slow Poke, who becomes a good friend. I found out at the end of the story something very special about Slow Poke, and that was also very surprising.

There is an exciting and scary adventure in this book. Turtle finds the map of Captain Caesar’s treasure. She and the Diaper Gang go on a boat to an island where they find a huge rock that the treasure is buried under. I really enjoyed this adventure because I would like to go hunting for treasure with them, and I was excited about what it might be. The Diaper Gang got into a lot of trouble during this adventure, and I was hoping they all would be safe.

The ending of the story was both sad and happy. I really enjoyed this book and would definitely recommend it to my friends. They would enjoy the ending also!

Review by Finnegan McCool, 5th grade

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

PIPPO THE FOOL by Tracy Fern

Fern, Tracy E. Pippo the Fool. Illus. Pau Estrada. Watertown, MA: Charlesbridge, 2009. Ages 4-7

Renaissance Florence has announced a contest to see which architect can design the best dome for the cathedral, and Filippo Brunelleschi is very excited. Called “Pippo the Fool” by the townspeople, Brunelleschi is a talented goldsmith but wastes time “designing peculiar machines and sketching outlandish structures no one wanted to build.” This extraordinary contest is perfect; it could be his chance to shake of the title of “fool” and show the city his “genius.”

When his plans are laughed out of the contest without a fair and thorough examination, Pippo sets out to prove that his designs can work, building a scale model of his dome. No one can dispute its beauty, architectual prowess, and craftsmanship, and he scores the win. In building the actual dome, however, Pippo must work with Lorenzo, his bullying arch-nemesis, and he considers quitting on that basis alone. He realizes, however: “I would truly be a fool to allow my pride to be bigger than my dome”--a valuable lesson about cooperation. Pippo does all the work while Lorenzo does nothing. But one day, while Pippo stays home sick, the judges realize the inept Lorenzo has no idea what's going on with the dome, and he is fired immediately!

Fern includes excellent detail, particularly after Lorenzo's canning: “[Pippo's] head stopped hurting, his back stopped aching, and he ate a nice veal chop, a handful of plump figs, and a wedge of cheese.” Finally, when the dome is completed, the townspeople hail Brunelleschi as “Pippo the Genius,” and he can breathe a sigh of happiness. “Finalmente,” he says, “a nickname perfect for me.” Having self-confidence all along allowed him to push pash his opposition and succeed in building his dreams.

The author's note in the backmatter expands the more complex history behind the simplified plot. Older readers or parents might find it historically interesting. The illustrator's note documents her extensive research of Renaissance artists, their quirks, and their work.

The illustrated Pippo is shorter and smaller than most of the other characters, as if he is the runt of the city, and perhaps appealing to kids who find themselves picked on for size. He often appears with a cat, curled up asleep wherever Pippo is working or presenting. Lorenzo, his enemy and opponent, however, is large and obnoxious, much like the villain from Disney's Beauty and the Beast.

The framing pages at the beginning and end of the story depict a country landscape, which I found ironic since the entire story takes place within the city of Florence, and the plot revolves around building, not countrifying the land. However, the country landscape situates the story within the city of Florence, which would have been surrounded by miles of rural farmland.

Overall, the art strongly reminds me of that of Tomie de Paola, particularly in works like Tony's Bread or Strega Nona. The faces are wide and expressive, and the pages are filled with rich color. Pippo the Fool is not only an approachable, enjoyable work of storybook history, but also a nice work of art. Definitely a keeper for the family book collection.

Reviewed by Marisa Behan

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

THE DRAGON TURN by Shane Peacock

Peacock, Shane. The Dragon Turn. Toronto: Tundra Books, 2011. ISBN 978-1-77049-231-8.

In the boy Sherlock Holmes’ 5th case, Shane Peacock takes his readers through a plethora of underground passages, secret tunnels and chambers, as well as mazes of late Victorian London streets, replete with fantastic villains, stumbling police detectives, and even a dragon. References to Charles Dickens place the setting between 1865 and 1870 (after Dickens’ last novel and before his death). Young Sherlock, who is apprenticed to the brilliant and eccentric apothecary Sigerson Bell (an allusion to Joseph Bell, one of the models for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock character) unravels a conundrum of near-murder and illusion involving a love triangle of infamous magician performers. An archrival character, Malefactor--reminiscent of the caricature-type villains from Batman--makes several totally irrelevant appearances, presumably for the continuation of the series’ antagonist.

Although Peacock is meticulous in his depiction of London’s geography in the 1860s, the narrative’s language and attitude are very contemporary North America. The reader has a sense of watching a recent formula teenage movie or video game in which the characters are dressed up in period-appropriate clothes, adventuring through a period-appropriate setting. Adult readers might tire of the shallow characterization and plot manipulations that result in flashy villain-hero stand-offs in terrific situations. The story is pointedly aimed at adolescent boys: girl readers will find themselves in the familiar position of watching the boys play the game, while the girls stand by the trophies or, at best, lend a little support. Early teen boys, however, may find much to love here, taking an easy step to narrative text from video/movie entertainment. Unlike Doyle’s original Holmes, young Sherlock is frequently distracted by the sexual attractions of women, all of whom are alluring, and all of whom impact the plot only by their impact on men. Although young Sherlock doubts his ability to engage their love, the reader observes the two beautiful potential mates frequently throwing themselves in Sherlock’s vicinity: thus the adolescent male reader has an opportunity for simultaneous hero identification and wish fulfillment. The only other women in the story, who are non-potential partners for Sherlock, enter the text with questionable virtue and a tendency toward a state of undress. Young Sherlock struggles for intellectual detachment, while the narrator, perhaps empathetic with his readers, exploits the tease.

The experienced reader will enjoy allusions to Doyle’s original text (references to cocaine, the name ‘Irene Doyle’ for one of the attractive young women, etc.). Also, the story has descriptions of Sherlock’s restless mind and developing deductive genius that hearken back to Doyle’s famous protagonist. Further, Peacock has fun allusions to other Victorian writers, especially Dickens (for example, references to spontaneous combustion taken from Bleak House, or a character’s name from Our Mutual Friend). Dickens actually appears in a gratuitous scene doing a reading of Nancy’s murder from Oliver Twist.

The plot concludes with an “Aha!” surprise. Thematically, Peacock takes some pains to underscore the value of virtue over vanity and pride. The villains, who are slaves to fame, escape justice; and young Sherlock Holmes, who has saved several victims’ lives, completes the case without recognition for his brilliance or daring. Bell, an alchemist, reminds Sherlock, “You must turn yourself into gold…. Here is what is more important than anything else--you, my young knight, did what was right.”

Alexandra Boyer

Monday, May 21, 2012

THE BEST CAT by Valeri Gorbachev

Gorbachev, Valeri. The Best Cat. Illustrated by Valeri Gorbachev. Somerville: Candlewick Press, 2010. ISBN 978-0-7636-3675-3. $15.99.

An ostensible story about the beloved family cat, Bootsy, the text is actually an altercation between brother and sister, performed in front of Grandma, Dad, Mom and Grandpa, using Bootsy a centerpiece. In what must be, in a family of confident children, a sometimes trying sibling rivalry, brother Jeff imagines Bootsy the cat to be the best of many things (clown, ballerina, fisherman), while sister Ginny counters with reasons why Jeff is wrong.

Jeff never loses his Peter Pan-like charismatic conceit, projected onto beloved Bootsy. Ginny enjoys playing the killjoy to Jeff’s “Lookit me” enthusiasm for Bootsy, by assuming the “Not so” attitude of a better-informed realist. However, despite her superior putdowns, Ginny is as imaginative as Jeff: the reason Bootsy can’t be the world’s best ballerina, for example, is not because she can’t dance ballet, but because she wouldn’t like wearing a tutu. Betsy never argues that Bootsy isn’t anthropomorphically capable of being the best at anything. Humor saves these two siblings from being truly irritating children, as their fantasy, rooted in love for their cat, takes on charm—especially in Gorbachev’s subtly drawn facial expressions.

Harmony is achieved on the last page when both agree that “Bootsy is the best cat in the world.”

Alexandra Boyer