Wednesday, February 19, 2014

A Trio of Top-Notch Novels I Didn’t Want to Read (But Am Glad I Did)

 True confession: I was a reluctant reader – at first – of these three novels. Each book had what seemed a fatal flaw to me as a reader; one, “The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp,” was an animal fantasy; another, “The Thing About Luck,” was written by someone whose previous prize-winning book wasn’t my favorite (to say the least); and the third, “Better Nate Than Ever,” had a bad cover (yes, I do judge a book by its cover sometimes – don’t you?). Yet, because each of them received such great reviews – and “The Thing About Luck” won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature – I decided that I should give them a try. Bottom line: I’m glad I did, and I’m now having fun recommending them to young readers in my library.

Let’s start with “The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp” (Atheneum, $16.99, ages 8-12) by Kathi Appelt, which was a finalist for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. What can I say? I’ve just never been a fan of talking animal books. Still, I know how popular they are with a certain segment of my young library patrons, and Appelt’s novel is one I know they will love. 

 Once I convinced myself to crack the first chapter, I couldn’t put down this book, which is, at turns, poignant, dramatic and laugh-out-loud funny. It’s hard to sum up the story, but suffice it to say that a pair of spunky raccoons named Bingo and J’miah help a young boy thwart a bad guy’s dreams of developing the swamp land. Other cast members include some gators, a gang of wild hogs and a yeti-like creature named Sugar Man. Oh, and there’s also a restaurant named the Paradise Pies Café and a partially sunken De Soto automobile that both are key to the plot.

Told in 104 short chapters by a third person omniscient narrator, the story of “The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp” is interesting in a quirky way, but it’s Appelt’s characters – especially the raccoons – who truly win the reader’s interest as you can see in this book trailer. Despite the fact that they are raccoons, Bingo and J’miah are just the kind of loyal and ready-for-adventure friends any kid would love, even those young readers who, like me, aren’t crazy about talking animals.

Now for Book Number Two. The first time I saw the cover of “Better Nate Than Ever (Simon & Schuster, $16.99, ages 10-14) by Tim Federle, I was totally put off. I got the play on the phrase “better late than never” and thought it was kind of clever, but the kid depicted on the cover seemed much younger than the character introduced on the jacket copy. Overall, the slickness of the cover made “Better Nate Than Ever” look like yet another forgettable novel – at least to me. But other librarians kept mentioning the book to me, and “Better Nate Than Ever” also got a good share of love among those betting on possible 2014 Newbery winners.

So I decided to give it a try, and from the very first page, I was totally hooked. I literally finished the book in one sitting. I loved Nate immediately and readily sympathized with his challenging life as the Broadway-music-loving younger brother of a jock star who is idolized in their western Pennsylvania hometown. By contrast, Nate, who loves to sing and dance, is predictably bullied by other eighth grade students because he’s a clearly different kind of kid, and even Nate’s parents keep trying to “toughen up” their son. The only one who seems to understand Nate is his best friend Libby, who helps him escape for a day to New York and the chance to audition in a Broadway musical based on the movie, “E.T.”

In this debut novel, Federle, who has danced on Broadway himself, displays a sure but gentle hand with his coming-of-age story, as he shows how Nate’s New York trip opens his eyes to a larger world, including one “where guys . . . can dance next to other guys who probably liked Phantom of the Opera and not get threatened or assaulted." While “Better Nate Than Ever” is a natural read for theater geek kids and “Glee” fans, any kid who feels different, in any way, will identify with Nate and will cheer him on.

And Nate is now doing an encore performance in a just-published sequel, “Five, Six, Seven, Nate!” (Simon & Schuster, $16.99, ages 10-14). In this video, Federle explains why he wrote a second book about Nate, who discovers that Broadway is "like a junior high school cafeteria but with more glitter." Final notes: “Better Nate Than Ever” was chosen as a 2014 winner of the Stonewall Book Award, given annually by the American Library Association to books “of exceptional merit for children or teens relating to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender experience.” And the audiobook, narrated by Federle himself, won a 2014 Odyssey Honor; the Odyssey Awards are given annually by the American Library Association to the best children’s and teen audiobooks.

One final book: when “Kira-Kira” by Cynthia Kadohata won the 2005 Newbery Medal, I read it and agreed that it met the Newbery criteria of “most distinguished.” But it’s just never been one of my favorite Newbery winners, and I’ve been luke-warm about the books Kadohata has published since then. So, when I saw her newest book “The Thing About Luck,” I didn’t rush to read it. But the book got rave reviews and was a favorite on the “Heavy Medal” blog where potential Newbery Medal winners are endlessly discussed. That piqued my interest and once I decided to read it, I was immediately caught in the world of the 12-year-old girl named Summer who narrates the book. In fact, Summer sets up the outline of the book in the first sentence: “Kouun is ‘good luck’ in Japanese, and one year my family had none of it."

Truly, it seems that nothing is going right for Summer’s family, and especially for Summer herself, since she was one of only 1,500 people in the United States who had malaria that year. On top on that, Summer and her brother Jaz are spending months under the care of their uber-strict Japanese grandparents because their parents have been called to Japan for a family emergency. And – even more challenging -- that means Summer and Jaz will be going with their grandparents on their annual trek around the Midwest as wheat harvesters – the major source of the family’s income. As Summer says: “Bad luck chased us around, pointing her bony finger.”        

 Yet Summer is a wonderfully resilient character whose voice irresistibly pulls readers through the pages – even those in which Kadohata painstakingly explains the ins and outs of wheat harvesting. But, surprisingly, my favorite character was Obaachan, Summer’s old-fashioned, unbending grandmother, who provides moments of both comic relief and true poignancy. Months after reading “The Thing About Luck,” Obaachan remains a memorable character to me, and one of the main reasons I’m so glad I read this book. To see if you might also like it, check out Kadohata's reading of a section from the novel.

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