Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Pax by Sara Pennypacker

Pax by Sara Pennypacker, illustrated by Jon Klassen
Blazer + Bray

Rating: 5 stars

If you've got a chapter book-reading girl in your life, you've probably seen or heard about the Clementine series. Sara Pennypacker writes that fun series about a lovable girl throwing herself headlong into middle school. Lorelei really loved it. Pennypacker also wrote this gem of a middle grade novel, Pax, that was just released earlier this month. It received a ton of fanfare--I think I heard about it a year ago; all the important people and places in the kidlit world seemed to have a countdown for Pax's publication.

I even pre-ordered it, which isn't something I do a lot. But it just seemed...special. But was it all hype?

Nope. The story, characters, and messages between the covers are extraordinary, and extraordinarily important.

Here's the story:

Soon after 12-year-old Peter's mother dies, he finds a small kit and keeps him--and names him Pax. When his father must go off to fulfill his obligation and fight in a war, he sends Peter to live with his grandfather. His father demands that he leave Pax behind, and forces Peter to trick Pax into going into the wild. As soon as Peter arrives at his grandfather's house, he realizes he made a huge mistake in sending Pax away, and he runs away to find and reunite with his beloved fox.

Along the way, Peter is confronted with challenges from both nature and man. Peter understands what a big deal this is--to run away from home for a pet--and questions himself appropriately. His bravery is sprinkled with the right amount of foolhardiness and fear. At a crucial part in his journey, he meets an old woman who turns out to be both a regret-filled veteran from a different war and the kindest soul he's ever met. They help each other in really neat ways.

The story is told with alternating chapters--Peter's story, then Pax's story (neither is told in the first person, which is a wise choice I think). Pax's story is well done; Pennypacker speaks for Pax in appropriate ways, and it's neat to see Pax's transformation from a tame fox to a wild one. He, too, meets others along his journey and questions his loyalty to his boy and his pack. I was completely drawn into both of their self-discovery journeys while they fought to return to each other.

It's clear to this adult reader that Pennypacker has real things to say about war, and the costs of war. We see a good character broken down by guilt and shame from what she did in war, and we witness animals being cleared out and killed or made homeless to make room for war, in addition to the breakdown of families that happens. In this case, it's a blessing as Peter needed to escape the heavy hand of his father.

This is an excellent book--we see the beautiful bond between a boy and his animal, we watch these two fight their way back to each other while maturing within their own skin in the process. Pennypacker's language is just perfect, and Jon Klassen adds that something extra with a few illustrations. I'm so glad this book is and will always be on my shelf to read again and again, with or without my kids.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

If Kids Ruled the World by Linda Bailey

If Kids Ruled the World by Linda Bailey, illustrated by David Huyck
Kids Can Press

Rating: 5 stars

I'm pretty sure every child on Earth would cheer if they got the chance to read this book. It is a brilliant crowd-pleaser of a book.

If kids ruled the world, here's what would happen:

Your doctor would say, "Eat your birthday cake so you'll grow up strong and healthy!"

You could wear anything you like. A T-shirt. A tutu. A tuxedo.

If you want to travel a long way, you could take a pirate ship.

You could have all the pets you like. Any kind!

Every yard would have a lake with frogs for catching and rafts for riding.

You'd never have to take a bath again.
You could go to any kind of school you like...
circus school, fairy school, inventing school, recess school.

All the sidewalks would be trampolines, all the cars would be ponies.

And, to end it just right, all the grandparents would remember how to play, and they'd join in, too. (No mention on the parents, though, which is funny to me--and understandable. Clearly, it's easier to remember how to be playful when you're a grandma, not a mom!)

As if the fun text isn't enough, when you add playful, fun images by David Huyck, this book is a no-brainer cheerer-upper for any day. My kids and I have had fun conversations about what type of school they'd attend if they could go to any school (inventing school, with breaks for recess school), and what type of breakfast they'd eat (cake).

Fun, fun, fun!

Monday, February 1, 2016

I Lived on Butterfly Hill by Marjorie Agosín

I Lived on Butterfly Hill by Marjorie Agosín, translated by E.M. O'Connor
Atheneum Books for Young Readers

Rating: 5 stars

Some years ago I was part of a writing group which encouraged us writer-participants to share what we've read. A woman a few decades older than me read a piece based on her childhood in Chile. She wrote about the hills and the sights of the sea, how her father came home from abroad and brought a woman's shawl for a woman other than her mother. There was something captivating about her story, and after she read, she explained how she and her family (had her mother forgiven her father and they left together? I've forgotten...) fled Chile during the violent Pinochet years.

I think it was this woman's story that made I Lived on Butterfly Hill to call out to me from the library shelves. I just had to read it, and I'm so glad I finally did.

The story is about and narrated by Celeste Marconi, a young girl growing up in Valparaiso, Chile, during a time of significant political turmoil. During the first few chapters, as Agosín drops hints to describe how deeply entrenched Celeste and her family are in Valparaiso, Celeste notices large ships coming into the harbor. She hears the grown-ups whisper; with the help of a wonderful dose of magical realism that is sprinkled throughout this novel, Celeste senses that some sort of darkness about will occur. Finally, it happens: the socialist President is killed, and a dictator takes over the country.

(In the book, it is fictional President Alarcon who is killed by an unnamed sunglass-wearing dictator, not real-life Allende and Pinochet.)

Celeste struggles to understand what is going on during the first week of the new dictatorship as books are burned and new rules are imposed. Many of Celeste's classmates and neighbors are "disappeared." Her parents, both doctors who work at free clinics for the poor and publicly supported Alarcon, go into hiding. Her grandmother watches over her, then decides to send Celeste to her aunt in Maine. Traveling alone and in exile from everything she's ever known to this faraway place, Celeste makes the best of it and trusts herself and has faith in her homeland while still opening herself to another way of life, and another group of people to love.

This is an excellent, excellent book. It's a long one for middle grade readers--over 400 pages--but Agosín quickly wrapped me in an emotional story about characters about which I cared deeply, and I couldn't put it down. I loved how Celeste matured into a patriot, more certain of the future of Chile than the grown-ups who were affected and still shaky from the political turmoil. 

I loved the insights young readers could get from this book: what a difference a political leader could make, what it's like being a non-native English speaker in an American school, how it isn't only Nazi Germany that has stories of escape and heroism and defiance, how many rights we Americans have that are taken for granted, the importance of literacy for a country. This book is rich with such lessons--I highly recommend it, especially if read and discussed with your child (or students).