Tag Archives: private schools

Wonder by R. J. Palacio

Children can be cruel, especially middle school age kids. It’s the reason that most teachers choose to work at elementary or high school, they can’t deal with the angst involved with the hormonal surges of pre-teenagers. It takes a special breed to actually enjoy that age group, children who once they find a weakness in their peers have no qualms in exploiting that fact, whether real or imaginary. “Your nose is too big”, “Your hair is greasy”, “You’re too fat”, “You’re too thin”, “You smell”, You’re stupid”, “You’re smart” . . . Now imagine that you really do have a physical “abnormality” which is front and center and impossible to ignore? Wonder by R. J. Palacio explores the reaction of a private school community to August Pullman, a ten year old boy with a rare congenital defect which has distorted his facial features.

August was home schooled, both due to the recovery periods from his twenty seven surgeries and also to shield him from the reactions of his peers. However, by the time he was ready to start fifth grade, his mother wondered if it wasn’t time to consider a school setting, Beecher Prep, a private school in New York City with a “limited” population. August is leery, but he agrees to check it out. Three of his incoming classmates are chosen to show him around prior to the start of the school year. While Jack and Charlotte seem nice, Julian is outright nasty. After much discussion, August decides to give it a go. The whole experience is not an easy one, neither for August, his parents, or his older sister Olivia Pullman. The adjustment involves not just August, but his classmates, as everyone learns to deal with one another – a process fraught with tension, not just from the kids but also from some of the parents. It’s a time of growth for all, and August develops from a spoiled child into a self assured young man over the course of the year despite or perhaps because of the challenges thrown his way.

What I really liked about this well written, age appropriate children’s book (which should also be read by adults) is the narrative approach Palacio uses to tell August’s story. While it was Auggie’s tale to tell, his life also affected others so we get to hear the point of view of various events from his sister Via, her “best” girlfriend Miranda and boyfriend Justin, a couple of August’s friends – Jackalope and Summer, and even his nemesis – Julian Albany. While we mainly hear August’s voice, it was also important to get the perspective of the people who surrounded him.

Even if you go into this book feeling aloof, eventually the uplifting message grabs you and pulls at your heartstrings. While some might question the happy ending, remember that there was a lot of cruelty along the way. I can only imagine what a tear jerker the movie version evokes. I also appreciate how the educators were cast in a positive, supportive light – they even impart some knowledge on the reader. The additional chapter from Justin’s point of view is a good counterbalance with a surprise revelation which creates a positive outcome for all concerned. Although a little lengthy, it’s still a perfect book for fifth grade ELA! Five stars.

This review also appears on Goodreads.

Advertisements

Diary of Anna the Girl Witch: Foundling Witch by Max Candee, illustrated by Raquel Barros

Of all the genres, the one which is the most difficult to master is the creation of a satisfying children’s book. Unfortunately, Max Candee, the Swedish author, has not quite found that sweet spot of success with his book, The Diary of Anna the Girl Witch: Foundling Witch. It’s not that his story is lacking since I enjoyed the engaging tale of the orphan Anna discovered as ammbabe amongst the Bears in Siberia by a kindly fur trapper. Upon reaching the age of six, her Uncle Mischa brings her to an orphanage in Switzerland and the story opens at the private boarding school which Anna attends due to a generous trust fund (gotta love those Swiss Bank accounts) that will provide her with the financial security necessary to support her on any quest which crosses her path. Add in some evil doers and the fact Anna has special powers, and you potentially have the start of something great.

The issue then is the delivery. Candee decided to create a book which is part diary, part first person narrative using simple text which doesn’t fit the age of the characters. Anna is an intelligent thirteen, not eight or even ten. In addition, children have become quite sophisticated in their reading material, note another book about witchcraft – Rowling’s Harry Potter series – which is a lot darker and more sophisticated than this story. Or examine the higher level of text in the malicious Series of Unfortunate Events. So the question is: “Who is the audience?” Not YA or even middle school, but perhaps those in the elementary grades (yet not too young). Despite the numerous kid friendly illustrations by Spanish artist Raquel Barros, which are a huge positive for this publication, this is definitely not a picture book.

Yet I’m sure this new series would please the average child especially if it were presented in a different format. Do away with the diary and narration, taking the exact same story, and change it into a graphic novel. Viola! Perfecto! The possibilities are endless. Barros is more than capable of extending her delightful drawings into a pictorial description of Anna’s adventures. The author has the imagination and talents to redraft this saga into something quite exceptional. Graphic novels are also a popular emerging genre, especially those written specifically for children, having already been embraced by middle and high school students. The Anna the Girl Witch series could be one of those ground breaking books which would delight a much broader audience.

Problem solved. So when Anna receives the bizarre gifts from her unknown mother on her thirteenth birthday and slowly discovers she is a witch with an affinity for the moon, we will visually experience her awe and power as she fights the lurking evil which threatens her friends at the school she attends. A female teen protagonist who saves the day is just the sort of role model young girls need to read about as a means of their own empowerment.

So there it is. Right story, great illustrations, wrong format.

A thank you to Netgalley and Helvetic House for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review. Two and a half stars.

This review also appears on Goodreads.

Remembrance by Michelle Madow (Transcend Time, #1)

Andrew (Drew) Carmichael, a rich kid from Manhatten, transfers to a private school, The Beech Tree School, in Pembrooke, New Hampshire. The moment he takes a seat next to Elizabeth (Lizzie) Davenport they both feel a bonding connection, but the appearance of Drew causes a rift in Lizzie’s life. She has a boyfriend, Jeremy, who she has been dating for three years, since eighth grade. Then there is her best friend, Chelsea, who instantly sets her sights on the handsome Drew and hooks up with him almost immediately. Despite their mutual attraction, Drew and Liz do their best to remain distant. Even so, they are thrown together often enough to maintain an unspoken link. Theirs is a push pull relationship, with Drew or Lizzie trying to connect, then pushing each other apart, like two positive polar magnets trying to join together. Drew is adamant that Lizzie is nothing to him, ignoring her most of the time, yet offering to tutor her in French or drive her home when she is caught in the rain. Lizzie is torn between her growing feelings towards Drew and her longstanding childhood friendship with Jeremy and Chelsea. The twist to the plot is that Drew and Elizabeth were in love before, back in 1815. Slowly the details of their reincarnated past are revealed. Little clues are given, such as Liz’s ability to draw distinct details of life from the Regency Era including a self portrait of herself in historical costume standing in the middle of a ballroom. Then there is her sudden ability to speak fluent French and play the piano – all talents from her past life. The author skillfully entwines past with present, leading to the anticipated conclusion (with a few snags along the way).

While the characters were relatable and the idea was interesting, Remembrance by Michelle Madow just didn’t have enough content to sustain a full novel. At times the plot meanders off and repeats itself. We don’t need to know every detail of Lizzie’s Junior year, nor what happened in each class. All right, she has trouble focusing when Drew is near, but after once or twice we get the drift of her feelings. Then when they finally do connect it gets kind of sappy. Drew turns from a strong individual to a love sick calf pleading with Elizabeth to return his love. This after he all but told her she disgusted him.

There are also some little details which nagged at me. Drew was attracted to Lizzie’s curly hair (as it appeared in the past), yet in the self portrait Elizabeth’s hair is long and flowing down her back. In the Regency era, women wore their hair up, never down, in public. Then there is the motorboat that they used to go out on the lake late at night. At night? It must have been pitch black on the water, not exactly a safe adventure. Plus, it’s a motorboat whose engine would be quite loud – loud enough to wake up those in the houses overlooking the lake. It just didn’t make sense.

Despite the discrepancies, I did enjoy this novel and the next book in the Transcend Time Saga, Vegeance, looks to be even more interesting. I am guessing that if these first two volumes were combined into one book instead of two, there would have been enough plot material to have a more complete work. Madow was inspired by Taylor Swift’s music video “Love Story” which previewed in 2008. She should have stuck to the one connection. Instead, the author tried too hard to emulate Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice as a parallel novel to her story. Since Austin’s work originally had three volumes, perhaps the author wished to mirror this endeavor. My advice, chuck the comparison and go your own way. Three stars.

Please note: I was given a free download of this title in exchange for an honest review.