(Watch the cool trailer.)Susan would prefer to be called Kestrel. Now that her disinterested mother has sent her to live with her aunt in the wake of her father's heart attack, Kestrel has decided to embrace her true self, which includes wearing all black, multiple piercings, and practicing "majix". It helps a little that her aunt is also a witch, but Kestrel's new school does not look kindly upon her decision to not wear the school uniform, and the students give her a hard time for being different. Will she have to resort to black magic after all, or will her new friends help her to navigate the treacherous waters of high school?
Strengths: Rees always writes with wry humor, and Kestrel's take on things, even when they aren't working out for her, is fresh and amusing. Even though this is set in high school, even middle school students will find her search for friends who accept her and her dealings with bullies interesting and true to life.
Weaknesses: Having been to too many anti-bullying seminars, I did want to slap Kestrel a little bit, because she brought a lot of the bullying upon herself. It's clear from Rees' writing that he understands this, but it's always uncomfortable as a teacher to read this sort of thing!
Selfors, Susanne. Smells Like Dog.
Nominated for the Cybils by Becky's Book Reviews.
Homer Pudding is mourning the death of his well-loved treasure hunting uncle when his uncle's lawyers drop off the uncle's most prized possession-- an unnamed basset hound. Homer begins to think that perhaps the coin that the dog has around his neck is the prized possession instead, especially when weird things start to happen, such as a man appearing out of the clouds to warn Homer of danger. After recieving an invitation to the Museum of Natural History in The City, Homer, with the help of his sister, takes off, only to find that people ARE after him because his uncle's bequest is really an invitation into a society of adventurers.
Strengths: This is a fast-paced novel, and rather engaging.
Weaknesses: This has a HIGH level of quirkiness. The names and characters (Milkydale, Lorelei with pink hair, a very tall, very sad woman named Zelda) and the situations are just odd. This always bothers me, and when reading this, I figured out why: it seems condescending. Selfors didn't take this approach in her Coffeehouse Angel, and it didn't add to the story for me.
Fergus, Maureen. Ortega.
Nominated for the Cybils by Naseem Hrab or Kids Can Press
Ortega is a gorilla who has been raised by scientists who have made him as human as possible. He can speak, walks upright when pressed, and is being sent to elementary school so he can learn to interact more effectively with humans. The problem? Ortega is huge, hates wearing pants, and smells really bad when he is afraid. The children at the school make fun of him, and Ortega fights being at school the same way that children who are bullied fight it. In the end, however, his classmates and handlers come to understand that Ortega isn't just a gorilla trying to be human-- he is an individual with opinions and emotions.
Strengths: This is a very good imagining of what it would be like to have a high functioning gorilla attend school.
Weaknesses: Although Ortega talks, this doesn't read all that much like science fiction or fantasy to me; it's primarily a problem novel. This would also be a hard sell to my students.
Myers, Walter Dean. The Cruisers.
This slim volume follows the workings of students from DaVinci Academy for the Gifted as a group of them tries to mediate between two factions who are researching and defending different views on slavery during the civil war. Interspersed with student writing, this discusses the problems that the entire school faces when the discussion becomes deeply personal and emotional.
The cover of this is very similar to Game, which is hugely popular with my students. While the viewpoints of the Civil War might be useful to 8th graders who are studying it in social studies, this philosophical bent is not what Myers' fans will be looking for. There is probably a sequel coming.