January 31, 2012

A green glass sea

by Ellen Klages

We first meet eleven-year-old Dewey Kerrigan on a train to New Mexico. She's reuniting with her father, whom she hasn't seen for four months. A mathematician, he's at work on a top secret project. It's some sort of gadget that will hopefully end the war. 

Dewey finds Los Alamos, a town that doesn't officially exist, a wonderful place. A lover of electronics and mechanical objects, she's thrilled to meet other scientists. She also enjoys trips to the town dump, where she can find useful material for her own inventions. Unfortunately, her interests also make her a target of bullies led by bossy Suze Gordon. Suze, however, is also an outsider whose attempts to fit in are mostly unsuccessful. When Dewey's father has to go on a work trip, she comes to stay with Suze's family. The two girls gradually become friends while we start to learn more about the Manhattan Project. Both of them, even the scientists in charge, aren't fully aware of how "the gadget" is going change the world.

An excellent, moving novel set in uncertain times. It's especially nice to meet girls who are intelligent, artistic, and interested in science and mechanics. Their characters - Dewey's bravery and Suze's growing maturity - are sensitively portrayed.

January 26, 2012

Animal research

by Kenneth Oppel

Ben Tomlin's father, a behavioural psychologist, moves his family across the country to pursue his latest research project - to teach chimps how to talk. The Tomlins are given a baby chimp to raise as a human. The chimp, named Zan, would wear human clothes, play with human toys, and learn to communicate through American Sign Language.

Ben isn't too thrilled at first, but slowly warms to Zan. As Ben becomes both researcher and loving older brother, Zan becomes a media sensation. But when the project loses its funding, Ben has to wrestle with some serious ethical problems. Is Zan a chimp, a human, or just a specimen in a cage? And what will happen to him?

Oppel has managed to meld the themes of scientific research and animal rights into a compelling coming of age story for both boy and chimp. Ben has to adjust to new surroundings, new friends and girlfriends, and a family that has been forever changed. Zan becomes attached to his human family, taking on human characteristics and emotions, but is forced to reassume his chimp identity. 

Moving, disturbing, and humorous at times, the story moves at a brisk pace, leading up to a suspense-filled, yet hopeful, ending. 

After reading Half Brother, I watched Project Nim, a documentary about a baby chimp raised as a human in 1973. It is much more disturbing than Oppel's book in that the humans really had no idea what they were doing. Their knowledge of chimp behaviour bordered on ignorance. Nim's human mother had no scientific training and spoiled him as she did her own children. Meanwhile, the arrogant project director screwed things up by having an affair with one of his students. Nim paid the price in broken attachments and a succession of ill-equipped animal sanctuaries, including a stint in a medical research facility. Sorrowful and haunting, the documentary is a must-see for anyone interested in animal welfare.

January 24, 2012

Man versus machine

by Bernard Beckett

Anaximander is taking her examinations. If she passes, she will be admitted to the Academy. The Academy runs her society. The subject of Anax's exam is a man named Adam Forde, a long-dead hero.

Forde had disobeyed directives in a matter of security and was imprisoned. In prison, he engages in a philosophical debate with an android named Art. At issue is whether a machine possesses consciousness and whether a machine is superior to man.

Anax has always felt that Forde was an important figure in her society's history, but her beliefs will be greatly shaken by the end of her examination.

Genesis is a very cerebral novel, dealing as it does with nature, philosophy, and free will. It is not an easy book to read, especially since the society's history is difficult to grasp. Only until the very last pages does the true horror of Anax's situation become clear.

The book is not a good choice for casual or reluctant readers. However, it would be very suitable for those who like thought-provoking science fiction, or have previously enjoyed Brave New World, 1984, or Animal Farm.

January 19, 2012

Magical winter fairy tale

by Anne Ursu

There's a line right in the beginning of this magical book that really attracted me - about snow: fluffy white flakes big enough to show their crystal architecture, like perfect geometric poems. You just know that something special is hidden inside. Something mysterious and wonderful. 

Hazel Anderson doesn't fit. She likes make-believe and superheroes. The other kids do not, and her mother doesn't understand either. Hazel's best friend is Jack, who likes superheroes too. She fits in when she's with Jack. But then Jack suddenly stops talking to her. Without him, Hazel feels lost. Her mother tells her that these things happen; that people change for no reason. But Hazel feels that there's something more. And she is right. Jack was taken away by a woman in white. On a sleigh.

So Hazel goes into the woods to find him and bring him back. In this version of Hans Christian Andersen's Snow Queen, Hazel meets wolves, a woodsman, enchanted flowers, and a witch. And she must come to terms with loss, betrayal, friendship, growing up, and unhappily ever after.

In Breadcrumbs, Anne Ursu has created a perfect gem of a novel for children struggling to fit in. She does so with understanding, sympathy, and love.

January 18, 2012

Blog for nonfiction!

I've started a new blog. Called Interesting Nonfiction for Inquisitive Kids, it will feature reviews of children's nonfiction books by Canadian authors and/or nonfiction books of interest to parents.

I have noticed that there are few blogs that have children's nonfiction reviews; those that do may only review them once per week. However, there are lots of kids who actually prefer nonfiction to fiction, and nonfiction can often be used to attract reluctant readers.

So bookmark the site and visit often!

Interesting Nonfiction for Inquisitive Kids

January 17, 2012

SF for winter

edited by Julie E. Czerneda

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to live on another planet? Or to live on Earth during really dramatic climate changes? In this collection of stories, find out how to live during solar storms, polar shifts, alien discovery, and massive ice floods. The most intriguing story is Aptitude, in which a strange artifact exudes a powerful force on an unsuspecting  archeologist.

January 12, 2012

World War II story from the Netherlands

by Louise Borden

Ten-year-old Piet lives in Sluis, Holland. Piet loves to skate. His hero is Pim Mulier, a sportswriter famous for skating 200 kilometers (125 miles) in one day. It took him 12 hours, 55 minutes. Mulier later organized an official skating race, the Elfstedentocht.

Piet dreams that one day, he too will skate in the Elfstedentocht. Instead, he must skate a more dangerous one. Piet’s grandfather has given him an important assignment: to escort his friends, Johanna and Joop, to their aunt’s house in Brugges, Belgium. Their father was arrested by German soldiers, and they are no longer safe in Holland. To get to Brugges, they must skate 16 kilometers along the Dutch canals, avoiding the sentries at the border. The journey is hard for 7-year-old Joop, and they're cold and tired, but they have to hurry before the sun goes down.

The light grays and browns of the illustrations are good at capturing time and place, while the story, told from Piet's point-of-view, is quietly suspenseful. Author Louise Borden also manages to include factual information - maps, pronunciation guides, and a bit of skating history - without interrupting the narrative. A good book for kids who like skating and adventure.

January 10, 2012

A compelling fantasy

The Witchlanders and the Baens have always been at odds. After the war, they retreated to their respective lands and kept to themselves. Now Mabis sees danger coming. An assassin is in the mountains. But Ryder’s convinced that her vision is clouded by maiden’s woe and that the casting of bones is false magic. The coven doesn’t even believe her. Then the village is attacked by men made of earth. And Ryder becomes haunted by strange dreams that are not his own. Meanwhile, a Baen named Falpian is having dreams too. It turns out that he and Ryder are talat-sa (twins in spirit). Together they must defeat a greater evil, expose a lie,and prevent another war.

A mysterious and challenging book; a bit different from many fantasies currently being published. The main characters are boys and there is no romance or quests to find missing persons. There is even less violence. Swordplay is kept to a minimum; Ryder and Falpian use song as weapons, making the final conflict much more suspenseful. The story also contains themes about coming-of-age, trust, and loyalty. An open ending suggests the possibility of a sequel. Well worth reading.

January 5, 2012

Figure skating

by Noel Streatfeild

Harriet Johnson, recovering from an illness, is prescribed skating lessons to strengthen her legs. At the rink, she meets Lalla Moore, who is being brought up as a future skating champion. The girls become friends, and end up sharing not only skating lessons, but ballet, fencing and school lessons as well. It’s assumed that Harriet will inspire Lalla to work harder. Lalla is being pushed by her Aunt Claudia, who wants Lalla to honour her late skating champion father. Claudia also wants to share in the glory and riches to come.

Problems arise when Lalla has trouble with her figures and her skating teacher takes an interest in Harriet, whom he thinks is more promising. This conflict takes quite a while to get started since Harriet is more of an avid admirer of Lalla rather than an active participant. 

The story is really about the extreme pressure that is put on Lalla by the adults around her. They expect her to be a champion without ever asking if she really wants it.

Streatfeild  skillfully weaves together a story of a loving family (Harriet’s) and character anxiety (both girls) to create a cohesive, absorbing story that turns out all right in the end.

January 3, 2012

The Bear Says North

Little Book Of Northern Tales
retold by Bob Barton

A collection of tales from Siberia, Norway, Russia, Lithuania, Sweden, Finland and Alaska. Starring animals, trolls and other mythical creatures, the stories will either enchant or mystify many readers. Out of ten tales, I only liked two - The Reindeer Herder and the Moon ( a reindeer hides a girl from the Moon, who has fallen in love with her) and How Frog Helped Prairie Wolf Bring Fire to the Humans (with the help of cougar, bear, bat and squirrel).