Saturday, April 23, 2022

Those Kids from Fawn Creek and The Prisoner of Shiverstone

Kelly, Erin Entrada. Those Kids from Fawn Creek
March 8th 2022 by Greenwillow Books
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Fawn Creek, Louisiana is a twon of so few people that there are only 12 children in the 7th grade... until Orchid Mason shows up. The other students know their roles; Dorothy is the shy, quiet girl who only talks to her friend Greyson, who is also sensitive and doesn't live up to his father's expectations of a son who likes to hunt. Cousins Janie and Abby are from families who are wealthier and run the local restaurant, and who fashion themselves as the popular girls, even after their friend Rennie moves to a nearby, larger town, Saintlodge. They often hang out with Barn and Slowly, who has the nickname because he struggles in school. Daelyn is very active in her church, and Max (whom Janie likes) is sort of popular as well. Orchid, who is pretty, kind, and well traveled, makes quite a splash in the classroom. Greyson and Dorothy want to befriend her, but are afraid that she will gravitate toward Janie and Abby. Orchid is pleased to hang out with them, however, and even encourages them to eat outside, which isn't against the rules, but isn't something people do, either. Greyson struggles at home, and is very interested in his mother's sewing projects, but is definitely not encouraged to engage in such "unmanly" activities, especially since his older brother is quite mean to him about things like that. As a community dance in Saintlodge approaches, there is a lot of drama about who is asking whom, and about Orchid's past, which isn't as glamorous as she would have people believe. Will the dance go off without any major hitches, or will it redefine many of the classmates' relationships to each other?
Strengths: There are certainly a lot of small towns like Fawn Creek in the US; a good friend of mine from Iowa had 43 people in his graduating class, and the school districts in that area are all consolidating, but most middle grade fiction is set in larger urban or suburban schools. I can't imagine having so few classmates, or what the interactions must be like. Certainly, children who feel different or somehow uncomfortable with themselves, like Greyson and Dorothy, must find such an environment difficult. Orchid is a fascinating character, and her back story about being in New York City and Paris is a cover for a much less exciting reality. This was a lyrical character study set against a vibrant, small town background. 
Weaknesses: Books set in the South (and in New York City) are somewhat of a tough sell with my students, and it was tough to read about Greyson's brother being such a jerk. I was glad that his mother and father were more understanding. 
What I really think: This was a bit like Shovan's The Last Fifth Grade of Emerrson Elementary, Standiford's The Only Girl in School or Buyea's Because of Mr. Terupt in the way it investigated the personalities and motivations of individuals and showed how these all worked together. It was definitely a bit older than both of those books, so the added intrigue of possible romances made this more upper middle grade. I liked Kelly's note at the beginning about her own tall tales about being a princess-- don't all middle school students have a secret back story that gets them through the day? 

Moore, Linette. The Prisoner of Shiverstone
April 5th 2022 by Harry N. Abrams
Copy provided by the Publisher

In this graphic novel, Helga Sharp wakes up in a hospital bed on and island, and is told she was found in a boat, her parents missing, even though she isn't shown previously in a boat. Utley, where many "mad scientists" have been sent from the Mainland, is where her grandfather, Erasmus Lope, who has been held captive in a large block of shiverstone. It's an odd community, built in a crater, and populated by people who have invented all manner of things that got them in trouble on the Mainland. Helga is able to communicate with him via radio, and needs to figure out how she can split the shiverstone and release him. There are a number of adults who are taking care of her, from the Alethea, the head of security, and her significant other, Frank; the suspicious Captain Ostridge and his helpful sister Miss Lucinda; and Lucida's helpful robot butler, Headly, whom Helga is able to persuade to help her free her grandfather. Helga thinks that a crystal worn by a rival scientist, Dr. Helguni, might be the key to inventing something to split the crystal, and endures a painful party in an itchy dress in order to steal the crystal-- which Dr. Helguni gives to her when she asks! Time is of the essence, as people are still searching for Helga's parents, and when a supply ship comes in a few days with the General, Helga will be returning to the Mainland with him. She makes good progress, but just as she thinks she will manage to free her grandfather, robotic spiders attack and throw things into confusion. Will she be able to free her grandfather and somehow be spared from having to go back to the Mainland with it's anti-science bias?
Strengths: It's good that in the absence of her parents, Helga has the company of her disembodied grandfather, and the support of the scientists on the island. Her scientific bent is encouraged, especially by Headley the robot, and she gets access to interesting library collections, and gets to work straightening up a lot of things for the scientists. Children in books should get more chances to organize things; I'm trying to think of other examples of this kind of activity that don't involve grandparents who are hoarders, but I'm coming up blank. There are lots of fun inventions in the illustrations, which are a bit mysterious since they aren't really explained. The drawings had a slight 1960s vibe to them, and a predominately red and teal blue color palette. The story had just enough detail for a graphic novel and wasn't too hard to follow. 
Weaknesses: The beginning was a bit confusing, and I never did quite understand how Helga had gotten to the island. Also, dresses are not necessarily itchy. Surely, an island of scientists could provide Helga with dresses that aren't itchy. I'm not entirely sure that the term "mad scientist" is one that is currently acceptable.
What I really think: There aren't as many fantasy middle grade graphic novels as there are realistic ones, and even fewer ones with STEM connections. This felt somewhat similar to Gerrity's The Dire Days of Willowweep Manor, and should be popular with readers who enjoyed Hatke's Zita the Spacegirl, Brooks' Sanity and Tallulah, or Sedita's Pathfinders series. 
Ms. Yingling

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