The Giver by Lois Lowry, published by Dell Laurel-Leaf
Genre: chapter book, award-winner (Newberry) Pages: 179 Audience: fifth grade and up
Annotation: When Jonas was an Eleven, his life was filled with Sameness. But, as a Twelve, he faces Assignment and that's when he meets The Giver.
Review: I have heard so much about this book from various students over the years. This comes up in class conversations nearly weekly for some reason or another, and I now see why.
The Giver is a book that sticks with you and lingers. As Jonas learns about Feelings in his newly assigned role, the reader becomes painfully aware of how necessary it is to be an individual and cherish your memories—even the bad ones. This is a powerful book, more appropriate for mature readers as it deals with issues of infanticide and euthanasia, but transcends those issues to deal with what makes us unique.
Critical Reviews: School Library Journal writes about the "tightly plotted story and believable characters" that will linger with the reader. Kirkus Reviews calls it a "richly provocative" story. The New York Times Review says that it is "powerful and provocative." What's clear is that The Giver is a story that lingers with the reader. It reminds me of a passage of Fahrenheit 451, where Faber describes good books as ones that get into your pores and lingers. The Giver seeps into your pores. The dystopian story is truly haunting, as only two characters in the book realize that anything is wrong at all. Everyone else is convinced that the world is perfectly ordered and functions as it ought to. All of the sources say that this is a book for older students (12 and up), and with issues of infanticide and (prescription) drug use, that is quite appropriate. Overall, this is a fabulous book for mature readers.
The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick, published by Scholastic
Genre: graphic novel, award winner Pages: 525 Audience: fifth grade and up
Annotation: Alone and lonely, Hugo Cabret struggles to rebuild his father's Automaton, keep his secrets, and stay alive in the bustling Parisian train station. But will the station inspector or the grouchy toy seller turn him in?
Review: A "novel in words and pictures," this book seamlessly brings to life the power of this story: an orphan struggling to stay alive in early 20th century Paris, clinging to the hope of bringing his father's Automaton to life. It is a fabulous story, dealing with magic and reality, secrets and truth, isolation and friendship. The drawings and the story are wonderful. I have never read a graphic novel in a similar structure, and thought it was an excellent format for telling this tale.
Editorial Reviews: Publishers Weekly said that this was a masterpiece and describes the book as "sumptuous" and a "standout achievement." Similarly, School Library Journal says that The Invention of Hugo Cabret is "characteristic intelligence, exquisite images, and a breathtaking design" and further praises it as "a masterful narrative." I think "sumptuous" was exactly the adjective for this book. It is something to savor, like a decadent piece of chocolate. The plot is powerfully done, and the illustrations are truly magnificent. This is a must-read for any reader.
CON-fidence by Todd Strasser, published by Holiday House
Genre: chapter book, realistic story Pages: 154 Audience: fifth grade and up
Annotation: After going to middle school, Lauren looks longingly at the "Don't You Wish You Were Me" girls and is shocked to learn that the new girl, Celeste, is already sitting with them. How far would you go to sit with them too?
Review: The book says its target age is 10 and up, but despite dealing with middle school issues, the book is more appropriate for children anticipating middle school, as opposed to those who are actually there. The writing is a bit forced, and the characters' choices are so obvious to anyone who's been in a similar situation, that it is rather painful to read. Celeste is more of a caricature than a character, as is Lauren's other friends. In fact, the only character that shows depth is Lauren. Perhaps this is because the story is told in the first person point of view. Regardless, the stiff storytelling and forced characters make this a painful read.
Editorial Reviews: Both Publishers Weekly and School Library Journal praise this novel for its realism and for Strasser's clean writing. Frankly, I thought the book was barely tolerable. I wouldn't recommend it at all.
Lady of Palenque, Flower of Bacal by Anna Kirwan, published by Scholastic
Genre: chapter book, series (The Royal Diaries) and historical fiction Pages: 204 Audience: fifth and up
Annotation: Join ShahnaK'in Yaxchel Pacal, Princess Green Jay on the Wall, as she travels from her treasured home of Lakamha to Xukpi to marry her family's ally. With dangerous weather, wild animals, and enemy warriors around, will she make it safely?
Review: I admit it, I was very skeptical of a series entitled "The Royal Diaries" that featured nothing but princesses from around the globe. But, this was a great historical fiction book about Mesoamerica. Told entirely in the first person (it is a diary after all), the reader experiences firsthand the dangers that Princess Green Jay on the Wall experiences as she travels from the safety of her home to her new husband's city. The descriptions of ceremonies, animals, plants, and traditions are wonderful. The use of Mayan language is a bit cumbersome, but once you discover the glossary at the end, it is totally fine. The Mayan names can be confusing in the story, but by midway through the book, you settle into the usage and spelling. Personally, I just skipped them. This book requires a lot of prior knowledge about the ancient Mayan culture, but the heroine is strong, which is quite admirable.
Editorial Reviews: School Library Journal says the book is for grades 4-6, whereas Booklist says the book is for grades to 6-9. Quite a difference! In terms of style of the novel, Lady of Palenque is more suitable for 4-6 graders, but the difficult subject is much more appropriate for 6-9. The foreign subject (Ancient Mayan culture) and the complex names and traditions make it suitable for middle schoolers, though ninth grade is too old for this book. Both reviews praise the strongly independent female characters, but complain about the glossary and scanty historical notes. I don't think it was that cumbersome, but it could be difficult for a fourth grader to read and understand. This would be very well suited for a class studying Ancient Mayan culture so that the necessary pre-knowledge could be taught. I enjoyed the book, but can understand the difficulty within. Overall, though, I would recommend this book for readers who enjoy strong heroines and exotic locations. This one has them both!