Tuesday, February 25, 2020

The Wonder of Wildflowers

Staniszewski, Anna. The Wonder of Wildflowers
February 25th 2020 by Simon Schuster Books for Young
E ARC from Edelweiss Plus

Mira and her family have been in Amber for five years, because Mira's mother is a scientist recruited from outside the country to work on finding a replacement for Amber, a magical substance that gives the people of the country good health and mild powers. It can also cure injuries and chronic illnesses quickly. The substance has been drying up, but the town in which Mira lives has strict rations to preserve the supply. Most people think that the borders of the country should be closed, and only citizens should get the remaining supplies. Mira is best friends with Krysta, the daughter of the mayor, and is largely immune from the hatred for foreigners, but Daniel, who is in her class, is not. He is small, weak, and wears glasses, and the children all avoid him. When Mira is assigned to work with him on a class wildflower project, she at first is mean to him, so that the other students don't think she is friends with him. When she finds out more about his life, and finds that there are similarities with her own, she is more supportive. Mira's mother is granted citizenship, and the family is supplied with Amber just before all rations are cut in half. Mira's father, who was a doctor back home but now does odd jobs and doesn't speak the language well, refuses to take it. Mira is at first excited, and is glad that it makes her strong, but it seems to impair her creative writing process. The community panics about the rationing, and there are several bad things that happen, but Mira and Daniel manage to find a way for the community to make peace and get along.
Strengths: This had a strong social justice component, and made me think of Applegate's Wishtree. There is an author's note where Staniszewski explains that she came to the US from Poland at the age of five, but never thought her story was very interesting. It's good to see both Mira's and Daniel's points of view, and to see how each of them process microaggressions. I can see this being used to good effect in an elementary classroom.
Weaknesses: The world building could have been more complete. I would have liked to know more about what exactly Amber does, and from where Mira and her family have come. Difficult circumstances are mentioned, but not fully explained.  I especially wanted to know more about how the Amber would cure Daniel's ill brother.
What I really think: My students are very interested in social justice topics, but middle school students might be better served by more realistic stories. Debating.

Smith, Alex T. The Fortress of Secrets (Mr. Penguin #2)
October 1st 2019 by Peachtree Publishing Company
Copy provided by Young Adult Books Central

Mr. Penguins and his friends Colin the spider and Edith are trying to keep a rock safe from dastardly types after a snafu in Cityville. They take to the air and run into trouble, crash landing on a snowy mountain but parachuting to safety with giant knickers. Luckily, they are found immediately by twins Dieter and Lisle and taken to their home in Schneedorf-on-the-Peak.Coincidentally, Dieter had written to Mr. Penguin to come and investigate why rodents in the town, including Dieter's own hamster, Mr. Tuftybum, have gone missing. In between fish finger sandwiches and cups of cocoa, Mr. Penguin helps to unravel the mystery centering around the International Rodent Games and an evil, shadowy figure who seems to be stalking the group who seems to have ties to a super villain intent on hypnotizing the world from an abandoned mountain top castle.

Like Marciano's Klawde, Woodrow's The Curse of the Werepenguin or Taylor's Malamander, this series features a goofy but well-meaning anthropomorphized cast engaged in derring-do. There are motorcycle chases, plane crashes, and dangerous machinery, and Colin, the kung fu spider helps Mr. Penguin out when things are dire. Dieter and Lisle are helpful, too, of course, and provide our hero with the background about their town, as well as snacks and a place to stay. The story is told with the utter confidence that Mr. Penguin's antics are perfectly normal, and that penguins solve mysteries all of the time!

The real brilliance of this series is the format of the book, which is similar to Smith's other series, Claude in the City. The words are large and well spaced on the page, illustrations abound, and the orange and black color scheme provides added interest. The illustrations are as goofy as the characters they portray; Professor Stout-Girdle, Gordon the pigeon, and the evil Mesmero, whose identity is a bit of a surprise!

For readers who revel in Roald Dahl's unlikely British tales accompanied by Quentin Blake's exuberant line drawings, Mr. Penguin is a great fit. In a world where spiders write notes to communicate and pigeons are able to fly their friends around, there's no doubt that a motivated (if not very bright) penguin can save the world for certain destruction.

This seemed too young for my students, although the I Can Read sized font would appeal to some reluctant ones. I'll be sending my copy on to an elementary school.

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