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Children's and Young Adult Literature
Genre 6 - Fantasy

DiCamillo, Kate.  2003.  THE TALE OF DESPEREAUX.  New York:  Scholastic (by arrangement with Candlewick Press.)  ISBN:  043970166X.
     THE TALE OF DESPEREAUX is a fantasy story about a mouse named Despereaux Tilling.  The Book of the First is about Despereaux, a smaller than average mouse with larger than normal ears.  Despereaux is not like other mice.  He would rather read books than eat them, he is enchanted with music, and he loves Princess Pea.  For being so different from the other mice and daring to love Princess Pea, Despereaux is banished to the dungeon.
     The next two books introduce Roscuro, a rat who wants revenge against Princess Pea because she broke his heart, and Miggery Sow, a young servant girl who has one wish, to become a princess herself.  All three stories lead to the final part of the story where, armed with a spool of thread and a needle, Despereaux braves the dungeon to rescue Princess Pea.
     DiCamillo reveals her characters through several means.  She lets the reader know the characters thoughts.  She also uses a narrator to give information about several characters.  The characters' actions and speech also give the reader details and insight into the characters themselves.  DiCamillo's Despereaux is a strong character who finds his inner strength in the story.  An example of this is when Despereaux is called before the Mouse Council for breaking the rules of conduct for being a mouse.  Despereaux explains that he broke the rules for good reasons:  because of music and because of love.  The Head Mouse gives Despereaux a chance to renounce and repent his actions and Despereaux replies "I say...I say...I," whispered Despereaux."  '"No," said Despereaux.  And this time, he did not whisper the word.  "I am not sorry.  I will not renounce my actions.  I love her.  I love the princess."' (p. 56.)  DiCamillo also shows Despereaux's weaknesses.  He faints after he has been sentenced to the dungeon and the rats.  The characters of Despereaux and Roscuro grow and change throughout the story, but Princess Pea and Miggery Sow are still much the same as when they were introduced.  Despereaux discovers he is braver than he thought and Roscuro learns that he isn't as evil as the rest of the rats.
     I enjoyed the parts of the book that were about Despereaux.  They moved along quickly and you began to wonder what Despereaux would do next since he didn't do the things a typical mouse would do.  I found the sections that were about Roscuro and Miggery Sow were not as interesting, although the information was important to understanding the final part of the book.  If we didn't know the events that had happened to Roscuro or Miggery Sow to make them the way they were, we wouldn't understand their actions or empathize with them.  The different stories of the characters all come together in the fourth part of the book which leads to a climax in the dungeon when Despereaux rescues the Princess.  Without Roscuro's part of the book, the reader wouldn't understand why Roscuro felt he needed revenge against the Princess or how he got Miggery Sow to bring her to the dungeon.
     The story, for the most part, takes place in a castle.  DiCamillo doesn't mention the name of any country, but it isn't really necessary to the story to know this, since most of the action takes place in the castle.  Knights, a King, Princess Pea, and the castle all hint that the story takes place in medieval times.  This all makes the story seem like a modern fairy tale.  Despereaux's actions are influenced by a fairy tale he read in the library of the castle. 
     The story has several themes that are appropriate to discuss with children.  One theme that is evident is Despereaux's love for Princess Pea.  This is a pure love, since he can never marry Pea since she is human and he is a mouse.  The theme of good versus evil is present, as well as forgiveness, with Despereaux representing good and Roscuro and the rats representing evil.  Good triumphs over evil in the story without killing evil.  Roscuro is changed.  He is no longer truly evil, nor is he truly good either.  This seems to describe most people as well.  No one is truly good, nor truly evil.  Despereaux also finds his inner strength and bravery through the story.  He accomplishes many things that he and others never thought he could do because of his size.
     DiCamillo's dialogue is natural to the characters.  Despereaux was able to tell one of the hooded mice leading him to the dungeon was his brother because he was always saying "Cripes."  Figurative language is used throughout the novel, especially metaphor.  The major characters are evoked in images of light.  DiCamillo used a variety of techniques to set and change moods in the story.  The use of light coming through the castle windows sets the mood in the beginning of the story and the dark dungeon creates the mood of gloom and evil.  The light is used to inspire hope, which everyone needs. The story isn't told through just one character's eyes.  We know the thoughts of all the characters and a narrator also provides information to the reader.
     Overall, this is a very entertaining story with worthwhile themes to discuss with children.  Many will be enchanted with the story about a mouse and a princess and the brave deeds accomplished.  For this reason, the novel received the Newbery Award in 2004.
Wolff, Virginia Euwer.  1993.  MAKE LEMONADE.  New York:  Scholastic.  ISBN:  059048141X.
     MAKE LEMONADE is the story of LaVaughn and Jolly.  LaVaughn is a fourteen-year-old girl who is determined to go to college and accepts a babysitting job from Jolly to earn money towards her goal.  Jolly is a seventeen-year-old single mother of two, who loses her job shortly after LaVaughn begins babysitting for her.  LaVaughn realizes that Jolly needs help, and urges Jolly to go back to high school and finish her education, for an education is the only way the Jolly can better herself and her children's lives.
     Wolff tells the story through the character of LaVaughn.  The reader knows LaVaughn's thoughts and feelings, but not the other characters.  We know about the other characters from what LaVaughn describes to the reader and through their conversations.  The characters are very believable.  LaVaughn is determined to get an education.  She would be the first in her apartment building to go to college (and she tells us there are 64 apartments in her building.)  Her inner strength and determination as well as organization are her strengths.  Her weaknesses are that she can be distracted occasionally from her goals and she tries to help Jolly even though Jolly doesn't want her help at first.  The characters of Jolly and LaVaughn both grow from the beginning of the story.  LaVaughn helps Jolly learn what her values are to begin to turn her life around.  She convinces Jolly to go back to school and get her education.  Because Jolly goes back to school and takes classes in the Moms Up program, this enables her to save her daughter's life.  LaVaughn learns and grows through the experiences of Jolly as well.  LaVaughn realizes how difficult Jolly's life is as a single mother which strengthens her resolve to go to college and earn a better life for herself.  "I look at her and I notice her way of taking hold.  It isn't my Mom's way but it's a way.  Maybe it ain't a way to get her out of here.  But it's a way." (p. 167.)
     I enjoyed reading this story about LaVaughn and Jolly.  The action moved along quickly.  Shortly after LaVaughn begins babysitting, Jolly loses her job and the two girls bond and begin looking for ways for Jolly to make a better life for herself and her family.  It is a good thing LaVaughn is there to befriend Jolly and help her because Jolly has no family of her own left to fall back on for help.  The story is very credible and believable.  Many girls find themselves as single mothers in this country and Jolly is a good representative of what their lives are like.  I thought it was interesting that LaVaughn foreshadowed what would happen to Jolly's daughter, Jilly.  LaVaughn explains to the reader that Jolly has to take a swim class with Jilly and CPR is included as part of the class.  Later in the book, Jolly has to use this new skill to save Jilly's life when she puts a toy plastic spider in her mouth and swallows it.  The story is very logical in sequence.  It begins with LaVaughn babysitting for Jolly, Jolly losing her job, LaVaughn convincing Jolly to go back to school and finish her education, Jolly gaining pride and self-respect with her accomplishments, leading to Jolly saving Jilly's life.  If any of these steps had been left out of the story, it would not have made sense or been as believable.
     The story takes place in the inner-city in an area that has gangs and run-down apartments in modern day, or close to modern day.  The story discusses the issues of gangs, single parents, and sexual harrassment, issues that are fairly common and talked about now.  The setting greatly affects the characters and action.  I have never lived in an area such as the one described in the book, but the description sounds very realistic.  The apartment complexes and Jolly's dirty apartment are very realistically described.  "The mirror is smeared with toothpaste.  The kitchen floor has the creamed spinach where I spilled a month ago.  I pull up a corner of the living room curtain and smell it:  you'd die.  You can't imagine the things that live down the plugged drain." (p. 23.)  The setting contributes to Jolly's sense of self-worth, that minimum wage jobs are all she is ever going to get.  After LaVaughn convinces Jolly to go back to school, Jolly begins to take some interest in cleaning the apartment.  "And I notice something right under my nose:  The dishes are stacked neat and orderly, the counter doesn't have yuck in the cracks, no cereal is all over the high-chair edges.  The floor is still terrible though."  (p. 143.)  I don't think you could take this story from this setting and it have the same powerful effect it has on the reader.  This type of situation occurs all over the country, yet it is more powerful in the inner-city setting where there are many more people and it is much more difficult to get help.  In the inner-city, people don't know each other as well as they may in a small, rural area.  I live in a small, rural area, and people look out for one another and offer help when it is needed.
     MAKE LEMONADE discusses many themes that are universal to everyone.  One of the themes throughout the story is the characters wish to escape the poverty of the inner-city and the way to accomplish this is through education.  This is an important theme to pass on to children.  Another common theme is self-respect.  Jolly cannot move forward until she gains some respect for herself.  Once she begins gaining some self-respect, things begin improving for her.  Another common theme is the phrase "When life gives you lemons, make lemonade."  Jolly and LaVaughn take what life has given them and have made the best of it.  Things may never be perfect, but their life is better for what they have experienced.
     The author writes in a first person, open verse prose.  This is very appropriate and powerful for this story.  The story is told through the character of LaVaughn and her dialogue with her mother, Jolly, Jilly, Jeremy and other characters is very natural.  Wolff includes local dialect and slang.  LaVaughn's mother quickly picks up on a change in speaking with LaVaughn when LaVaughn uses the word "ain't."  "My Mom adds five pounds across her chest by breathing in deep and she says to me very clear:  "Nobody says AIN'T in this house.  Nobody ever said that word here before.  Nobody needs to say that word here now.  You know why, Miss?  Miss, you know why?"  And she gives me a little bit of room to answer:" (p. 144.)  The author has used the lemon seeds planted in the pots as symbols of a new beginning, or new life.  LaVaughn and Jeremy plant lemon seeds several times, but it isn't until LaVaughn brings fertilized potting soil that the seeds sprout.  After Jolly saves Jilly's life, she meets LaVaughn in the hallway at school months later and lets LaVaughn know that the seeds have sprouted.  This symbolizes Jolly's life.  LaVaughn had to provide the proper "soil" for Jolly to get the skills she needed to improve her quality of life.
     I found this a very moving and inspiring novel.  The message of hope is prevalent throughout the story.  Hope is what allows a person to be able to improve themselves.  The message that an education is important if you wish to improve your quality of life is one that we need to pass on to our children.  The story could take place in any inner-city with any ethnic group, but wouldn't be as powerful if set in a small, rural area.  I particularly liked Wolff's idea that you have to take what life gives you and make the best of it, hence the title MAKE LEMONADE.
Kadohata, Cynthia.  2004.  KIRA-KIRA.  New York:  Atheneum Books for Young Children.  ISBN:  0689856393.
     KIRA-KIRA is a story set in the late 1950s and early 1960s about a young Japanese-American girl, Katie Takeshima, who describes her family's move from Iowa to Georgia.  Katie dearly loves her older sister, Lynn, who is also her best friend.  Katie's first person narrative describes several humorous events as well as more serious events of discrimination her family dealt with.  Through Katie's eyes the reader feels what it was like to be a Japanese-American in the 1950s.  The reader also feels what it is like to lose an adored older sister to disease.
     The reader learns more about the Takeshima family through Katie's first person narrative, her thoughts and feelings, actions, and through her conversations.  In KIRA-KIRA, the reader experiences how the relationship between Katie and her sister, Lynn, changes over time.  In the beginning of the story, Katie looks up to and admires her older sister.  When they are older and Lynn gains a best friend at school, we feel Katie's resentment and bewilderment as she is left out of Lynn's life as Lynn and her friend to more together.  When Lynn dies from lymphoma, the reader experiences Katie's anger and feelings of helplessness and grief because she has lost her beloved older sister.  '"Who was with her?"  I said.  My father's voice broke as he said, "Nobody."  That cut hard into me.  I wished so badly that I had not gone out.  I should have know better.  I should have!  I could not imagine what dying must have felt like for her.  I had no idea whether it mattered or not to her that she had been alone at the exact moment she died.  But I thought maybe it did matter."' (p. 202.)  Kadohata avoids steroetyping the characters.  Any stereotypes that are included are typical of the time period in which the story is set.  The story about the relationship between the siblings and dealing with disease and dying translate to any ethnic group.  I found the characters very credible and believable.  It is easy for the reader to put themselves in Katie's shoes and experience her feelings.  I cried when I read the part where Lynn died and I experienced Katie's feelings.  An example of this is when Katie tells her uncle some of the feelings she is experiencing.  "I said, "I'm fine," and then I burst into tears.  He let himself in and listened to me cry.  I told him my horrible secret that I had told myself I would never tell anyone and that I had made Sammy promise never to tell.  But now I started to blabber.  "Uncle, sometimes while Lynn was sick, I got angry at her.  Usually I hid it from her, but one time I got mad out loud." (p. 220.)  The author also included instances that showed how Katie's character had grown and changed from the beginning of the story.  Lynn had been the "smart" sister and Katie had always struggled in school.  After Lynn died, Katie made more of an effort to do better in school.  "Sometimes, no matter how hard I tried, I got a C.  That happened a lot.  But when I worked hard, I got better grades.  This surprised me.  I guess because Lynn was so smart and it had seemed easy for her to get good grades, I never noticed how hard she worked.  I thought getting an A was something that happened to you, not something you made happen." (p. 229.)  This shows growth in Katie's character to understand this concept.
     KIRA-KIRA tells a wonderfully moving story of the siblings relationship and how it changes and is affected by serious disease and death.  These topics are appropriate for middle school children and older.  The plot contains plenty of action as it follows the various events that take place in the family's life.  I enjoyed reading about Katie's first experience of school and Lynn gaining her first non-Japanese friend and how that changes the relationship between Katie and Lynn.  Katie always seems to see beauty in the world.  This concept was taught to her by her sister, Lynn, at a young age while they still lived in Iowa.  Lynn taught Katie the word 'kira-kira' which means "glittering" in Japanese.  This is why the book has the name KIRA-KIRA.  "When I grew older, I used kira-kira to describe everything I liked:  the beautiful blue sky, puppies, kittens, butterflies, colored Kleenex." (p. 1.)  "My sister had taught me to look at the world that way, as a place that glitters, as a place where the calls of the crickets and the crows and the wind are everyday occurrences that also happen to be magic."  (p. 243-244.)  The story has a logical sequence, beginning with the time that Katie is old enough to remember events, follows the move to Georgia, Katie beginning school and growing older, and ends shortly after Lynn's death when Katie is beginning to heal from her sister's death.  Kadohata gives the readers hints that Lynn is not well as Katie notices them and leads up to her parents finally telling her that Lynn has lymphoma.  This leads to the climax of Lynn's death.  The plot was very well plotted and the book is very deserving of winning the Newbery Award for 2004.
     The setting of the book begins in Iowa but quickly changes to Chesterfield, Georgia located in the Deep South.  The author indicates the time period through a variety of ways.  She mentions television and the discrimination the family faced because they were Japanese-American.  They had to pay an extra two dollars for a room in the back of the motel.  The book also discussed the organization of forming a labor union at the factory Katie's mother worked at.  The author also states that the character of Katie was born in 1951.  The setting of the story does affect the action and characters.  The south was known for discrimination to be more prevalent and obvious, but by no means the only place where it existed.  The story has universal implications in that the relationship between the two sisters could apply to any ethnic group, as well as the issues of disease and dying.
     The story has many themes.  One of the most important themes of the book is the theme of love and devotion between sisters.  It also deals with the issues of death and healing after a loved one has died.  Katie searches for ways to live up to what her sister would wish her to do, one way she accomplishes this is to work harder in school.  She may not achieve the grades her sister, Lynn, achieved, but Katie is trying harder.  Kadohata also includes the theme of hope.  "I think that summer, when my father moved Lynnie's bed, and when he went to apologize to Mr. Lyndon, he'd realized that we had a choice:  Either we could be an unhappy family forever, or not." (p. 236.)  "Now and then I thought I heard Lynn's lively voice.  The cricket sang, "Chirp! Chirp!" but I heard "Kira-kira!" (p. 243.)  The themes emerge naturally from the characters and avoid moralizing.  The reader draws many of the conclusions for themselves.
     Kadohata's style of writing is very appropriate for the story and characters.  The dialogue is natural and typical of children including the arguments Katie and Lynn had about friends, boys, and when Lynn was sick, the milk and then the water.  The author sets many moods in the story.  Katie describes several humorous events with her uncle and his family, with Lynn's friend and her own friend, and her observations about people in general.  The overall impression of the story is love, the love of family and between siblings.  The story is told from Katie's point of view and this makes a powerful telling of the story.  The reader experiences what Katie experiences, her joy, love, anger, guilt, pain, loss, and healing.  The phrase "kira-kira" is used to symbolize how Katie looks at the world, as a place that glitters, which leads to the title of the book.
     This has been one of my favorite books to read during this class because the author does such a wonderful job of making you experience what Katie is feeling.  I felt what it was like to be Japanese-American in the 1950's and 1960's, what it was like to have such a close sibling relationship, and how it felt to lose someone you loved.  I also enjoyed how the author left you with a sense of hope at the end of the story.

Rosoff, Meg.  2004.  HOW I LIVE NOW.  New York:  Random House, Inc.  ISBN:  0385746776.
     HOW I LIVE NOW is contemporary novel about Elizabeth, who prefers to be called Daisy, who has an eating disorder and a pregnant stepmother that she does not get along with.  She is sent from Manhattan to England to stay with her deceased mother's family.  When she arrives in England she is picked up from the airport by her fourteen-year-old cousin, Edmond, and quickly forms a bond with him and the rest of the family.  Shortly after her arrival, Aunt Penn leaves to try and help prevent a world war from breaking out without success.  England is invaded by an unnamed enemy power and the British army takes over the farm and the family is split up to different places.  Daisy and her cousin Piper, are determined to rejoin Edmond and the boys and eventually make it back to the deserted family farm.  Before the boys can be found, Daisy answers the ringing telephone at the farmhouse and is shocked to hear her father's voice.  Daisy is taken back to New York against her will and it takes six years for her to make it back to the farm and to a very angry Edmond. 
     The story takes place in an alternate, modern day version of England.  The author indicates this through discussion of modern day conveniences such as computers and cell phones.  It did take me a while to figure out that this was an alternate version of reality.  The book discussed events from World War I which I am familiar with, but then it would discuss other events that I was not familiar with, and this had me confused until it dawned on me that this is an alternate version. 
     Rosoff tells the story through the character of Daisy.  Daisy is a rebellious, self centered teenager, who is very unhappy with her father's remarriage.  Daisy does not get along with her pregnant stepmother and this is the reason why she is being sent to live with her mother's family in England.  In the story, we see Daisy change from this self-centered teen to a courageous survivor who has learned to love and have compassion for others.  Daisy also comes to learn the effect war has on others.  When she is reunited with Edmond six years later, she encounters the intense anger and emotional scarring he suffers from as a survivor of being a captive of the enemy during the war. 
     The book tells an interesting story that teens will relate to.  It describes what it might be like to experience a war first hand.  It will make teens wonder what they might do in the same situation and question the decisions Daisy and some the other characters made.  This is an original idea to take what many of us are familiar with and write what things might be like in an alternate reality.  The story moves quickly after Daisy arrives in England, the terrorists strike, the war begins, the family is split up, trying to reunite after escaping their guardians, leading up to Daisy being sent back to New York.
     Several themes are discussed in the book.  Different kinds of love are discussed in the book.  There is the importance of the love of family and how that gives a person strength.  The first love between teens is also discussed, although the ramifications of the love between first cousins is not addressed.  The themes of courage and survival during a war are addressed.  Many of us do not know what we are capable of doing in a situation such as the one addressed in the story.  Daisy and her cousins all demonstrate different levels of courage and stamina in this stressful situation.  The story also shows how people can grow and change from their experiences in these situations.
     Rosoff's style of writing is different from what I am used to reading.  She tells the story in a first person narrative, from Daisy's point of view.  The story is written as a teen would write it.  There is no puntuation for conversation.  The sentences are written as a teen or young adult would if they were to sit down and write what happened, including run-on sentences and punctuation not being where it should be.  The mood is created from Daisy's descriptions of the war, confustion, gloom, sadness, and anger are all portrayed by Daisy and her cousins.  The garden Edmond planted symbolizes his rage from the war.  "Below, the huge frilled lips of giant tulips in shades of white and cream nodded in their beds.  They were almost finished now, spread open so far, splayed, exposing obscene black centers.  I've never had my own garden but I suddenly recognized something in the tangle of this one that wasn't beauty.  Passion, maybe.  And something else.  Rage." (p. 181.)
     Rosoff's book is a powerfully written account of what it might be like to experience a war today.  There were some parts of the book that did not appeal to me.  I was uncomfortable with the huge leap in time the book took at the end, the jump of six years.  I would have liked to have had more information of what went on during those six years.  What was Daisy's life like back in New York?  Was she able to communicate with her cousins in England?  How, through the phone or mail?  What happened to each of them during the war?  How did the war end?  Who was the unnamed enemy?  How was the enemy able to take over so quickly?  Could this really happen today?  Can an enemy really take out communication so quickly?  I was left with more questions after reading the book than I had answers.  I was also very confused at the beginning of the book since it took me several chapters to understand that this was an alternate reality version of what could happen.  Rosoff also introduced topics such as sexual relations between first cousins that I believe should have been more thoroughly addressed.  What would the community do and how would they react once they knew?  How would Daisy and Edmond be treated by others? Then there is the moral issue of whether this acceptable that each reader will need to think about and answer for themselves.  Overall, I found the book interesting, but uncomfortable because of some of the issues involved.
Farmer, Nancy.  2002.  THE HOUSE OF THE SCORPION.  New York:  Atheneum Books for Young Readers.  ISBN:  0689852223.
     In THE HOUSE OF THE SCORPION, Nancy Farmer weaves an intriguing story of Matt Alacra`n, a human clone of El Patron, a 140-year-old drug lord of Opium.  Opium consists of the Alacran Estate as well as the estates of the other drug lords and El Patron, the Scorpion, is the powerful overlord.  Situated between Mexico and the United States, El Patron's workers are captured illegal immigrants from both countries that have been turned into "eejits".  Eejits have been implanted with a computer chip that turns them into human robots who do exactly as they are told in order to farm the opium fields.
     Matt enjoys a special status as El Patron's clone.  He has been granted an education and is indulged by El Patron, but El Patron has an evil fate planned for the boy.  Only his friends, Celia and Tam Lin, have the courage and determination to foil El Patron's plan.
     Nancy Farmer has skillfully told a plausible futuristic story.  Much of the technology she describes could be a reality in the future.  Scientists have successfully cloned several animals now and we do have computer chips that can be implanted into animals to find them if they get lost or run away.
     An interesting part of the plot was when Matt questions the Keeper's right to try to force the orphans to all believe in certain ideas, to think in the same way.  Matt had been educated to question ideas and to think for himself.  This has serious consequences for Matt.  He doesn't conform to the Keepers' ideas of what the orphans should all think and believe, therefore Matt is a problem that needs to be gotten rid of before he "infects" others into believing as he does.  Because of this, they try to kill Matt.  With the help of two of his friends, Matt manages to escape and with El Patron now dead, Matt assumes El Patron's position, since genetically, he is El Patron.  Now that Matt has power, influence, and money, he can change some of the things that many consider "evil" and use his influence to right them.
     I thought it was interesting that Farmer introduces the idea that those in control can exert control over society's thoughts in order to make everyone in the society think the same way.  It made me question whether there are those in power today that try to manipulate the press and other sources of information in order to achieve this goal.  It also makes the reader question whether a society should try to make everyone think in the same way.  Wouldn't society stagnate if this were to happen?  I personally believe that change and questioning ideas can only be good for a society.  While they may be uncomfortable and sometimes unpleasant, the consequences without them could be quite chilling.
     I enjoyed Farmer's presentation of the theme of good versus evil in the story.  She has carefully crafted her book so that the reader can question the idea of "what is evil?" and therefore grow as an individual.  She also discusses the themes of love and loyalty in the book.  Celia and Tam Lin demonstrate the power of love and loyalty in the story.  Tam Lin gives up his life for these concepts.
     Overall, this is a very well written science fiction book that raises several important questions and issues for the reader to ponder.  I believe it is for these reasons that the book was a Newbery Honor book in 2003.  The story keeps the reader involved and it makes the reader question their own beliefs and ideas.

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Last updated 01/15/2006