At Kidlitcon, we talked about whether we write "negative" reviews or not. I used to do a "not what I wanted Wednesday" feature where I discussed what lead me to pick books up and why I was somewhat disappointed in them. The following titles are ones that some people must like-- the first three were nominated for the Cybils awards-- but which didn't quite fill a need in my library collection. I do try to be constructive in my criticism of each book, but overall they were just more depressing than my students want. My students certainly do want sad books, but they want very particular sad books about certain issues, and these just didn't fit the bill.
Gantos, Jack. The Key That Swallowed Joey Pigza (Joey Pigza #5)
September 2nd 2014 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR)
Nominated for the Cybils by Cath in the Hat
In this fifth and final book, Joey's father is still on the lam and his mother is suffering from post partum depression. He goes back to his school, where the teachers and staff welcome him warmly, but his mother calls him and demands that he come home to take care of Carter Junior while she goes to the hospital for treatment, since she is concerned that she will hurt the baby. Joey accepts the challenge and cleans the house, which is filthy and roach ridden, and tries his best to take care of the baby, with the help of the pet chihuahuas and the occasional visit from pizza delivery man Mr. Fong. He also is visited by his former girlfriend, Olivia, who has run away from her school and wants to help take care of Carter Junior as well, even though she has several bad experiences with him because of her blindness. Joey unearths his medication from his mother's closet, which helps a bit, and finds money for food. His father reappears and tries to steal the baby, but Joey tells his father that before he comes home, he needs to clean up his act. Eventually, the family is able to organize itself a bit, but the future seems anything but certain for the Pigzas.
Strengths: Our 6th grade reads the first book in this series as a class novel, so there is always some interest in Joey's continued adventures, which are darkly funny and address a student with behavioral as well as possible mental health problems, a diversity issues rarely seen in children's literature.
Weaknesses: This was a very dark book, and Joey receives very little of the help he needs. I am Not Joey Pigza was sad as well, but much more slapstick-- the descriptions of roaches, of the baby's diaper rash, of Olivia's depression and so much else are just heartbreaking in a very realistic way. I almost feel like I should sit beside any student reading this in case they need to process what's going on in the book. This also makes me worry a bit about how Mr. Gantos is doing. Is he depressed? I bought this book without reading it, but now I rather wish I had taken a look before ordering it.
Rundell, Katherine. Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms
August 26th 2014 by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Nominated for the Cybils by Angiegirl
Wilhelmina lives an idyllic life in Zimbabwe where her widowed father who is the manager of a farm lets her run wild around the countryside with her friend Simon. She enjoys being outside and doesn't want to be civilized. (The original title of this was Girl Savage.) After the death of her father, the owner of the farm marries a woman bent on getting rid of Will, so she is sent to a boarding school in England. Since she has little schooling and no sense of personal cleanliness, and is quirky as well, the other girls give her a hard time. Will runs off and spends some time in the zoo before living in a garage of a boy she has met. After a short time, the boy's grandmother finds Will and tells her that sometimes it is braver to do what must be done, and Will returns to the school and tries to fit in a little more.
Strengths: The descriptions of life in Zimbabwe are very interesting, and it is a place about which not much is written. Will's desire to be true to herself is somewhat admirable, if unwise under the circumstances, and the grandmother's advice is one to take to heart.
Weaknesses: Will was an unlikable character to me, although others may find her more admirable. I thought that her father did her a great disservice in not teaching her how to adapt and cope with life among other people. It was sad and alarming that Will was so neglected, and the end of the book didn't make me think that her situation would ever improve, which was very sad.
Ellis, Deborah. The Cat at the Wall
September 9th 2014 by Groundwood Books
I adore Ellis' The Breadwinner and other books, and think they are fantastic for being "windows" into the lives of disadvantaged children in other countries. Ellis can write a sad story, but make it hopeful. I was hoping for something similar in this one, and the story of the cat in a Palestinian house would have been interesting and informative. When this took a turn into fantasy, it made the story much less effective and much more confusing for me.
From the Publisher:
"A cat sneaks into a small Palestinian house on the West Bank that has been commandeered by two Israeli soldiers. The house seems empty, until the cat realizes that a little boy is hiding beneath the floorboards. Should she help him? After all, she’s just a cat. Or is she? She was once a regular North American girl, but that was before she died and came back to life as a cat. When the little boy is discovered, the soldiers don’t know what to do with him. It is not long before his teacher and classmates come looking for him, and the house is suddenly surrounded by Palestinian villagers throwing rocks, and the sound of Israeli tanks approaching. As the soldiers begin to panic and disaster seems certain, the cat knows that it is up to her to diffuse the situation. But what can a cat do? What can any one creature do?"