Sunday, February 26, 2012

Juniper Berry

I am not a scary book reader.  I'm not fond of horror - I just don't want to imagine those scenes.  I have a big imagination, so if I read something scary, I tend to remember it and think about it again at the most inopportune moments.  Like when it's dark, late at night, and I hear a strange noise (gulp!).  That's part of why this book is so refreshing - it is creepy and scary, but it's nothing middle schoolers can't handle.  In fact, some of the creepiness comes from how ordinary Juniper's life seems from the outside.

Juniper Berry is 11 years old, and she has famous parents.  They are both famous actors, and when she was young, they were able to leave their work behind when they came home.  The Berrys had Juniper as the focus of their lives.  Lately, though, her parents are distracted, acting like she's not even in the room.  The nicest thing they say to her is "Go away."  The Berrys worry about not being famous enough, they panic over the roles being offered to others, they fret over their performances and their lines.  Juniper knows something is not right.  But their eyes tell her the truth - they are flat, empty, and emotionless.

Since Juniper's parents became so famous, Juniper has become more and more isolated.  She was already homeschooled, locked behind the gates of the home where fans flock all day.  So when she sees a boy wandering the woods behind their house, she runs to meet him.  Giles lives nearby, and he is worried about his parents as well.  They are famous in the music world, and suddenly things are not right with his family either.  The biggest giveaway is their eyes.  Giles has followed them in the dead of night to a specific tree on the Berrys' property.  And Juniper has noticed something about that particular tree, too - a raven who perches there constantly - the only one in the area.
Kozlowsky does an amazing job of ratcheting up the tension and suspense without making the book too frightening.  There are a couple of really yucky scenes, but most of the terror in this book comes from fear, not gore.  Kozlowsky has created a combination of adrenaline ride and thoughtful commentary on today's society.  I believe the ideas behind the book will stick in readers' heads much longer than the fear.

This is the author's first novel, and one of his gifts is description.  And the descriptions he creates are unusual, yet give you an immediate picture.  He describes Mrs. Berry this way "Her torso was also long and seemed to bend like warm rubber..." (p. 11).  And Juniper longs to touch Giles' wet hair, and when she does, it feels like "thick strands of yarn, or, Juniper preferred, waterlogged caterpillars." (p. 29).  Both descriptions are quirky but strong - you can see Mrs. Berry bending, you can feel Giles' hair as Juniper does.  These descriptions really heighten the tone of this novel, making it feel creepier and creepier.

You may have already guessed that Juniper and Giles' parents are in trouble, and maybe even that it has something to do with the fact that they are all famous.  I don't want to give away too much and spoil your experience of this novel, but I'll say that Kozlowsky does an excellent job of looking at the price of fame in a way that young readers will understand.  Juniper's parents are seen constantly evaluating their fame.  "'Juniper, dear, you go to all those websites, those gossip pages, posting boards.  Have they been mentioning me?'" (p.11)  Both Juniper's father and mother worry their best days are behind them.  They feel old, not attractive, not successful, even though people are constantly hounding them (even Juniper's tutor scours the house for the latest Berry gossip).  But it is never enough for them.

One of the things I find most interesting about this book is the parent-child dynamic.  In most teen books and many books for middle schoolers, the parents are absent in order to allow the younger characters to act without parental influence.  But in this book, Juniper's parents are present, physically there in front of her.  And yet she is still absolutely alone, horribly neglected.  Her biggest desire is to have her parents back with her, to continue to make that connection with them.  Where many books show characters who aren't connected to their parents  (separating from families as part of the coming of age process), Juniper and Giles both desperately need their parents.  Juniper particularly is a typical 11 year old - sometimes brave and strong enough to act decisively on her own, more often still longing for her parents' touch.  It is a sad consequence of her parents' actions.

I hope readers will take the message her to heart - all of the parents have enormous aspirations, and gave up things to gain shortcuts to fame and stardom.  While they do work at their crafts, it comes much more easily now.  I think Kozlowsky does a great job of couching this message in an adventure.  Students will read on to see what happens to Juniper and Giles, but I hope they will take away the idea that things that come so easily might not be reality.  I think that idea gives the terror substance - what would the reader do to achieve their own dreams?  Read it, think about it, and let me know.  I hope this story of terror and temptation doesn't come true for you.

Juniper Berry.  M.P. Kozlowsky.  Walden Pond Press: HarperCollins, 2011.

borrowed from Lewis & Clark Library

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Alice in April

I've been reading my way through the Alice series for about 18 months now.  They aren't the only thing I'm reading, as you can tell from my other entries.  But every time I pick up a book from this series, I gulp them down in a very short amount of time.  As I read, I fold down the corners of pages I want to go back to.  When I'm done reading, there are usually many dog-eared pages throughout.  There are so many ideas about growing up that really resonate with me, both remembering life as a young teenager and looking at Alice as an adult.  That's why I'm always so pleased to share these with you - if just one teen reads this series because of my writing, I'll feel like I did my part!

Alice in April begins right before Alice turns 13.  One of the most dated plot points in this novel (this was published almost 20 years ago, in 1993) involves Alice's Aunt Sally.  Since Alice's mother died before Alice was even in Kindergarten, Aunt Sally is the closest thing Alice has to a mother.  Sally advises Alice that as she turns 13, she will need to become the Woman of the House (capital letters intended), to support her older brother and father.  Sally reminds Alice that Alice's mother was a homemaker.  When Alice questions what a homemaker is, Sally "said a homemaker just makes a better home." (p.29).  She also gives Alice a laundry list of tasks she needs to begin, including all of the mending.  Eventually Alice's father discovers Alice's worries about being the Woman of the House, and reassures her that he does all the mending, and that no one needs to start spring cleaning just yet.

It is difficult for Alice to remember her mother, so she relies on other people's stories and memories of her.  Often in the past Alice has told her father she remembers something about her mother, and it turns out she's really confusing her mother with her Aunt Sally, who helped care for Alice after her mother died.  This is always painful for her father, and of course it's painful for Alice, too.  She is constantly reminded that she is the one person who has no idea what her mother was like.  That sort of mistaken memory is mentioned in every book - sometimes matter of factly, sometimes sadly.  As readers, we have grown accustomed to this, and accept that Alice will not ever remember anything about her mother.  So in Alice in April it is such a surprise, and such a gift, when Alice does finally remember something involving her mother.  "The more I thought about that scene, the clearer it became.  Yes, it was definitely my mother, and I remembered hugging her legs as we sat on those steps...." (p. 51).  In the memory, a young Alice tells her mother that she will never marry, and stay with her mother forever.  Her mother replies that Alice will find someone kind to love her.  It's a little bit of throwaway wisdom that I'm sure Alice's mother never thought would become a treasured memory.

Alice has thought and talked about her mother's death in all of the books so far.  This series is realistic in depicting Alice's grief.  While her family moves on with their lives, they all feel their mother's absence.  But in all of the previous novels, Alice has looked at her mother's death from her own sense of loss and perspective.  In this story, Alice goes to get a physical, and has a shocking moment of recognition: "It was weird, but I suddenly thought about Mom just then - wondering if she'd been sitting in a doctor's office in a paper robe like this the day she found out she had leukemia." (p. 41).  Alice is growing up, and this is just one way Naylor demonstrates that.  It is only for a split second (just seven lines of text) that Alice puts herself in her mother's place.  But it is poignant and heartbreaking and all too real.  You really see her mother, sitting on the table.  She has always been a shadowy character, since we can only know what Alice knows, but here she comes into sharp, tearful focus.

This isn't the only heartbreaking loss in Alice in April.  Alice spends some time with Denise, who we originally met in Reluctantly Alice, two books ago.  Denise began as a bully, but eventually she and Alice have become tentative friends.  Alice knows that Denise's life at home isn't good.  Denise shows up unannounced at Alice's house one night, and stays the night because she doesn't want to go home.  When Alice's father can't reach Denise's family, he notifies the police that Denise is safe with them, but no one ever comes looking for Denise.  Alice can tell Denise is hit on a regular basis, but doesn't question it.  Denise shrugs it off, and seems to accept it.  She tells Alice that her mother "won't change.  That's the problem - no matter what I do, I can't win. (p.69).  Alice shows empathy and compassion for Denise, and supports her as best as she can.  But sadly, it isn't enough.  Readers will be as shocked as Alice is to find out that Denise has committed suicide.  I felt the impact of this act as I read - I hadn't seen it coming, as bad as Denise's life was.  The school is told about Denise's death in an assembly, but Alice is in total shock.  "He went on talking, but I didn't hear.  I found myself crawling down through the seats in the bleachers, pushing aside people's feet to make room." (p. 155).  For many students today, this is unfortunately something they've heard about either locally or on the news, but to see Alice experience it is still emotional and visceral.  It leaves readers shaken.

Denise's death happens at the end of the book, and Alice definitely isn't okay by the final scene.  She is contemplative, wondering what she could have done differently.  In the end, she realizes "...all we can do is be the best friends to each other that we can and hope it's enough." (p.159).  Growing up is never easy, and Naylor's willingness to share this struggle is just one of the things I love about this series.

Alice in April.  Phyllis Reynolds Naylor.  Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 1993.

borrowed from Lewis & Clark library

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Press Here

We had an unexpected snowstorm here this week.  Well, I did read the newspaper the day before the storm, and noted that there would be "light snow showers".  So it isn't the fact that it did snow that was surprising, it's the fact that those light snow showers dumped more than four inches of snow on the ground that was surprising.  My girls and I aren't huge play outdoors in the cold kind of people - our time outdoors in the snow is mostly limited to going to and from the car.  So when it's winter our small condo can feel even smaller.  That's why a book like Press Here is so invaluable.  I am not exaggerating when I  say that this book is magic.

Tullet starts with a large yellow dot and an instruction - "Press here and turn the page".  Immediately you can tell this is no ordinary "interactive" book, where children are instructed by the text or prompted by a parent to make noises, shout louder, or answer the narrator's question.  This is also not in the style of the electronically interactive book, full of bells and whistles that aren't directly related to the text and story.  No, instead the child is truly interacting with the physical book.  A word of advice here - this really isn't a storytime book for more than a couple of readers.  Otherwise you will have mass chaos, shoving and pushing as everyone wants to follow the instructions!  Each page includes an instruction from the narrator ("shake the book one more time", "press hard on all the dots.  Really hard.") and here's the magic part - it really looks like you've done something!  When you turn the page after pressing that first yellow dot, you see that there are now two yellow dots.  Later in the book, you tilt the page to the left, and when you turn the page, all of the dots have moved to the left side of the page.  This technique is so clever!

There are two things that make this book so perfect for preschoolers.  One of these is the unique way Tullet incorporates basic concepts into this book.  There are dots of all colors in this book, and children are sometimes instructed only to touch specific colors: "Try pressing down really hard on ALL the yellow dots."  So children learn their colors.  They are also expected to follow directions like pressing lightly, tapping a certain number of times, and moving the book in a certain direction (up, left, down).  It incorporates all of these concepts in short, easy to interpret instructions.  The tone is friendly and conspiratorial "Now tilt the page to the left...just to see what happens."  Preschoolers scramble to interact with this book.

Another thing that attracts preschoolers to this book is control.  We all know that preschoolers do not have much control and power in this world.  They are dictated to and directed all day long, whether at school or at home.  This book is so seductive because they can control the way the book turns out.  Dots grow when they clap their hands; the dots shift from side to side when readers tilt the book.  Instead of being told the story, they are the story.  And what's amazing, at least in my house, is that this power is exciting through multiple readings.  When I first brought this home from the library, I thought this book was a one-trick pony - that once my girls had experienced it, that would be it.  But this book is not so easily cast aside.  Both Frances and Gloria continue to return to it repeatedly, with shrieks and scuffles each time.

The text is very brief - no more than two lines of text per page - in a handwritten font.  The pages are mostly white, with the dots in primary colors.  Teachers of older children could use this book as an art lesson, as the dots mix colors, turning orange and green.  They could also look at how the dots focus readers' attention and keep the book from feeling too plain, even though it is composed of dots.  The book is simple, but has a huge impact.  It is simple but powerful too.  I'll be buying one of these for my daughters' preschool.  I recommend you buy one too.  You'll be pressing here along with your chosen child.  Enjoy!

Press Here.  Hervé Tullet.  Chronicle Books, 2011

borrowed from Lewis & Clark Library