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Jan/Feb 2005 Book Reviews

Fiction for Middle-Schoolers

Reviewed by Colleen Mondor


Hilary McKay. Indigo's Star.
McElderry Books. 2004.
Ages 8-12

Hilary McKay introduced the Casson family in 2001 with Saffy's Angel. I enjoyed that book immensely although it did leave a few lingering questions about the family itself. In Indigo's Star the loose ends are tied up along with a whole new host of uncomfortable situations common to families with many school age children. The most predominant problem in the sequel is bullying and how young Indigo will cope with a truly intolerable school situation. Because he is a Casson, of course he must do things in a most unorthodox way. The fact that he makes a great friend while still maintaining his own self-respect just makes readers cheer for him even more.

McKay is a very well known author in Britain and just brilliant at creating the types of characters and families that you wished were your friends. There is nothing saccharine or perfect here, the kids have their mood swings like everyone else and Mrs. Casson has a habit of forgetting to buy appropriate food and drink for a house of teenagers (she's an artist, she's always painting, not cooking). But wouldn't it be cool to live in a house where an artistic child is encouraged to draw on the kitchen wall? Yeah, I know, it's unreasonable to expect that sort or thing but still, why does it have to be? Maybe a little wall art is what we all need every now and then. For all their love and support of each other, the Cassons are not however the Brady Bunch. They are just creative and original and unique, and they love living that way. Indigo spent all of Saffy's Angel reading about polar explorers and sitting outside his bedroom window in an attempt to cure himself of fear of heights. Unorthodox, yes, but brilliant, also yes! That's what these two books do; they introduce a family who insists on thinking and living outside of the box. In the midst of a lot of enforced conformity these days, I think all of us could do with a double dose of the Cassons, and more helpings please Ms. McKay, in the future.

 

Karen Klise. Regarding the Sink.
Illustrated by M. Sarah Klise
Harcourt. 2004.
Ages 8-12

Sisters Karen and Sarah Klise have carved a niche for themselves in children's literature by crafting books with hilarious plots that are wholly dependent upon the exchange of letters, emails, phone messages, etc. There is no conventional novel format here, no dialog, no narration. Newspapers spread throughout the story provide important information and every single line must be read in order to grasp entirely what is going on. Even the ads can be important. This attention to detail has succeeded in creating a most unusual set of puzzle books, where the reader is solving a mystery of sorts along with the main characters. In the latest outing, Regarding the Sink, the question is why the Geyser Creek Middle School cafeteria sink is clogging and more importantly, what has happened to famous fountain designer Florence Waters, friend to the school and star of the previous book, Regarding the Fountain.

To give away any of the plots for either title would tell too much, suffice to say in the first book Geyser Creek is looking for a new school fountain and in the second needs a functional cafeteria sink. Florence Waters is no typical fountain designer however and she engages the children of the fifth (and later sixth) grade class in assisting her on both projects. Florence is a very eccentric character, which translates into her being a blast on the page. She introduces the concept of feng shui in the second book and takes her mission on spreading its healing powers very seriously. Although these are, at heart, both comedies I couldn't help but wonder why so much of our modern schools are based on industrial design. Maybe a fountain should be more important than just attaching a silver box to the wall and maybe a sink could be a work of artů.maybe.

Sarah Klise's art is crucial to the success of these books and she has a field day with her sister's stories. The fountain and sink designs are wildly creative, the characters are all finely drawn and the newspapers are excellent. There is a lot of information packed in these books, but it is all drawn clearly and easily deciphered by the reader. Whether or not they solve the mysteries before the end is another thing, but the challenge is clearly laid out and accessible; it just depends on how carefully they read the text for clues.

Both Regarding the Fountain and the new book, Regarding the Sink are excellent titles to consider for puzzle obsessed middle schoolers. They are smart and funny and demand just that little bit more from their readers than the average fare. The fact that they are both very funny is a bonus that just makes them that much more enjoyable.

 

Cindy Trumbore. Genie in the Book.
Handprint Books. 2004.
Ages 8-12

In a funny take on the old story of the genie in the bottle, author Cindy Trumbore traps her genie in the middle of an old copy of The Arabian Nights and lets all the predictable antics ensue after his discovery. Genie in the Book is about Will Parrish and his sister Maddy who are spending the summer with their grandmother on Cape Cod. It should be an idyllic vacation but Will is the type of boy to carry around a lot of worries, and this summer he has more to consider than usual.

Will's parents own and operate a diner that is under serious threat from a new chain coffee shop (shades of Starbucks here). Also his little sister is annoying, his nearby cousin has a habit of getting into trouble and dragging Will with him and his grandmother is sporting a broken ankle, which means trips to his favorite beach won't be happening. And these are just the big things that Will has to dwell on. There are also a myriad of little problems from his sister's birthday party to a missing sign that constantly trip up his days and nights. The genie is a chance to fix all these problems and also to have his heart's desire, if only he can figure out just what that is.

Genie in the Book is a smart adventure for the middle-grade set with lots of literary jokes, a visit from Sinbad and a surprising jazz twist thrown in during a town fair. The problems Will is facing are very real and his concern for his parents is paramount throughout the book. Trumbore handles the specter of an evil corporate overlord is an efficient and believable fashion, proving that as long as you are willing to address your troubles, you have a decent chance at making them better. (It doesn't hurt to have a genie helping you out though!)

With great illustrations by R.W. Alley throughout, this is a fresh approach on a classic that will be enjoyed by any child who likes their mystery smart and their action with a dose of humor. And it has jazz music! How can you resist that?

 

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