Monthly Archives: August 2007

Road Trip Reads

I’m off to play Super Auntie for the weekend and I’ve decided to read In Search of Mockingbird on the bus, since I hear that most of the story takes place on a bus. I’ve been curious about this one since I picked up the ARC at the bookstore, but it got lost in the summer stack.

Before I have my say, here’s what everyone else thinks about it: Chasing Ray, propernoun, Becky’s Book Guide. (It’s also on the list of possible titles for consideration at Sharon’s Newbery).

This got me wondering about road trip stories for kids.  Anyone know any greats aside from Polly Horvath’s The Vacation?

A little Can-Con (Canadian Content): Rex Zero and the End of the World

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Tim Wynne-Jones’s Rex Zero and the End of the World is a quiet book that deserves to get noticed, and with 2 recent awards, it likely will be (2007 Boston Globe – Horn Book Award Honor Book, CLA Book Award 2007).

It’s summer 1962, and Rex Norton-Norton (Rex Zero to you) is a ten-year old kid who has just moved from Vancouver to Ottawa.  He has those typical new kid concerns – will he make friends? what will the new school be like? – and he has much bigger things on his mind – rumours of an escaped panther in the local park, the Russians, the Big One, backyard bomb shelters. The story traces the events of Rex’s first summer in the city, its lazy days underscored by the distant but ever-present possibility of nuclear disaster.  I love Rex’s voice, and the clever way Tim Wynne Jones has Rex say things that are hilarious in a completely unselfconscious way.  Rex’s family is charming and kooky: Cassiopeia – who craves sophistication, Annie Oakley – who builds a bomb shelter out of old Punch magazines, the dog Kincho who no one really wants, and the baby – “the Sausage.”

It’s hard to really describe what this book is about.  Part of what makes it feel rich and real is the fact that there isn’t one single thread of story that pulls you through the book.  Rex has a lot of questions, and worries big and small.  There are many things going on in his head and so the story drifts between the day-to-day workings of family life – car trips and meal time and watching tv, to the messiness of the outside world.  It’s a book that manages to be simple, but deep.

The book has an old-fashioned feel that belies its current relevance.  I imagine kids today feel most of the time that they’re getting just part of the picture when it comes to what’s going on in the world.  Rex faces different “unknowns” during his first summer in Ottawa, and figures out a few mysteries.  There are so many books out there for kids about “the summer that changed everything.”  It’s kind of a cliche.  What I like about this one is the fact that yes, this is a summer of change for Rex, but the changes are subtle, and of the kind that he probably won’t recognize or begin to understand until he’s much older.  This is a book that makes you wonder about who Rex will become, because you imagine he’ll turn into one cool teenager.

Let’s hope Mr. Wynne-Jones has been busy writing this summer.  We want more Rex.

Rex Zero and the End of the World  is published by Groundwood, House of Anansi Press

Elf Envy – Random Round-up

Today just felt like the right day for my first foray into Round-up land.

Here are a few juicy items that made the Elf envious aujourd’hui:

A cool co-review of Knuffle Bunny Too and The Wall at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.

Fuse 8 pointed me to a new mock Newbery site, Sharon’s Mock Newbery. I’m curious about several of the titles that are up for consideration.

Semicolon has assembled some sensible and fantastical bookshelf possibilities. I must have a Book Cave. I must.

I’m liking the sound of Emily Gravett’s Little Mouse’s Big Book of Fears described in Times Online by way of Achockablog. Shades of Scaredy Squirrel perhaps? What’s not to love?

Thank you to The Miss Rumphius Effect for her teacher-type poetry idea: the cento. Fun stolen do-it-yourself poems. I like.

I will try to be clever all by myself tomorrow.

I Am a Taxi

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With each new book, Deborah Ellis continues to pull off a tricky feat. She writes “important” books for young people, that manage to impress critics and teachers and at the same time, have a powerful effect on kids. Her titles are timely, sometimes gritty, and yes, educational. In this case, however, this is not the kiss of death. It’s rare to find books that teach kids overtly about world issues, and do not seem heavy handed, or that aren’t just badly written. Ellis knows how to create characters, and brings her mature subject matter to life in a convincing way through those characters.

I Am a Taxi introduces Diego, a twelve year old boy whose home is San Sebastian Women’s Prison in Bolivia. He lives in a cell with his mother and baby sister and his father is imprisoned in the men’s jail across the road. Diego helps to support his family by working as a “taxi” – running errands into the city for other prisoners. His family is in jail because his parents happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time when coca paste (an ingredient used in cocaine production) was found on the bus they were traveling on. Diego is a smart kid, who makes a bit of extra money doing homework for other kids in his school outside the prison. He takes care of his sister and as much as he can, enjoys the limited freedom that his taxi work offers. In spite of trying to make the best of his life, he cannot imagine staying in the prison for 13 more years. After an incident leads to a financial crisis for his struggling family, Diego takes a chance with his best friend Mando on a new job that promises good, quick money. It turns out that they have been manipulated into joining a gang of coca paste producers, and the boys end up in the jungle facing the realities of producing and using coca paste.

Deborah Ellis has a very direct style, and perhaps that’s why her stories work for so many kids. There isn’t a lot of messing around with excessive descriptive passages. The story really pulls you along, and by the end you are more than ready to follow Diego’s experiences in the sequel, Sacred Leaf. While Diego was a well-realized character, I felt the secondary characters were not as rounded as those in Ellis’s Breadwinner series, which gave those books real resonance. Also, while she gives a brief overview of the nature of the coca conflict at the end of the book, the interconnections between the cocalero (coca farmers), the sellers, producers and buyers are vague within the story itself. An average reader would need more background to better understand the relationship between Diego’s forced labour and the rest of the drug trade.

Ellis’s books prove that many kids are not just able to handle reading and learning about difficult issues, but are actually eager to do so. The Breadwinner had just about all students in my class under its spell – boys, girls, “reluctant readers,” sporty types, Play Station addicts, chicklit fans… Everyone had at least one strong reaction to that story. That says to me that it is an important one for kids to experience, and I plan to read I Am a Taxi to my students this year.

For insight into the experiences of kids like Diego, visit Street Kids International a Canadian-based organization that works to help street kids around the world, and has inspired Ellis in her writing.

I Am a Taxi by Deborah Ellis is published by Groundwood Books

And your next great read is…

Thanks to Fuse #8 by way of Your Neighborhood Librarian for this addictive little time-sucker. Visit Whichbook.com and watch your next great reading recommendation pop all magic-like onto your computer screen. I like that you can read a tiny extract and that you’re given parallel choices too. Fun.

Challenge: Find a quest story, with lots of twists and turns and a 26-50yr old protagonist, set in Iceland.

I dare you.

Shelfelf + Shakespeare & Co.

Back from Paris to the scorching Toronto heat. Those Parisians… it’s hard not to want to curse them and their perfect cheese and their perfect scarves and their perfect city. Instead, I will take the high road and acknowledge their superiority in the following areas:

1. Ice cream

2. Fromage

3. Churches

4. Vacation time

5. Gargoyles

6. Shoes

7. Salads

8. Window Gardens

9. Fountains

10. Bookstore cats

As proof for #10, I give you “Kitty,” the current mouser at the magical Shakespeare & C0.

Kitty catching some zzzs on Love in the Time of Cholera:

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Kitty hoping I will go back to Canada if I can’t see his face:

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Since I couldn’t buy Kitty (or steal him), I was forced to content myself with at least one book every time I went to Shakespeare and Co. (Lucky we didn’t get there until close to the end of the trip). For those who have never been there’s a virtual tour that seems to work only some of the time, at: Shakespeare & Co Tour

Reviews coming soon!