Thursday, July 5, 2012

Happiness is...a good book (Summer Reading edition #8 & #9)

My Snake Blake
Author: Randy Siegel
Illustrator: Serge Bloch
Published: 2012
Pages: 32
Age Range: 3+
Genre: Fantasy/Picture Book
Cover Score: ****
Overall Score: ****
 Rating: G

First sentence: I was in my room, hiding from my homework, when my dad knocked on the door, handed me a big box with a red ribbon on top, and shouted: "Happy Early Birthday!"

A young boy is surprised one day with a package from his eager father (mother, not so pleased). Dad quotes the Declaration of Independence in defense of letting the snake (for that's what lay hidden under the wrapping paper) out of his cage. Mother is aghast until the snake twists and curls its body into a cursive 'hello' greeting followed by his name, Blake. Blake is very polite (he never bites anyone or does anything bad) and helpful (he does the dishes and helps the boy with his homework.) He even eats unwanted Brussels sprouts and guards against bullies. Blake is a very handy pet to have around.

The premise, the illustrative style, even the muted red/green color palette is generously borrowed from the pages of an old favorite, Crictor by Tomi Ungerer. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, in fact, fans of one will most undoubtedly love the other. And those who are not necessarily fans of snakes (such as Mother and this reader) will find themselves charmed and wishing they knew one just like Blake.

It's simple, it's silly, it's just the perfect touch of fantasy to take the edge off a dully realistic world. Perfect for inspiring daydreams as to what other secrets animals may be hiding from us and what we might do if we knew.

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One for the Murphys
Author: Lynda Mullaly Hunt
Published: 2012
Pages: 224
Age Range: 9-12
Genre: Realistic Fiction
Cover Score: ***
Overall Score: *****
Rating: PG

First Sentence: Sitting in the back of the social worker’s car, I try to remember how my mother has always said to never show your fear.

12 year old Carley Connors has ended up in foster care. Growing up with her mom in Vegas wasn't so bad. Sure they shopped at the Goodwill dumpster under cover of darkness and sure mom was rarely there when Carley came home from school but there were the surprise birthday celebrations and Little Mermaid song fests. They were surviving fine on their own until mom decided to marry Dennis and Dennis decided to beat them both. When Carley leaves the hospital mom is still unconscious and Carley's carted off to live with the Murphys.

Now she’s got to deal with little boys who can’t seem to get enough of her (even the one who resents the attention his mom gives to Carley), and a ‘mom’ who can somehow see into Carley’s soul. She’s not sure what she’s feeling or how she should treat these people who are strangers yet far more accepting than any blood relative Carley’s ever known. As she opens her heart to this new family she learns how to love and forgive and trust and begins to heal the family she was born with.

Mrs Murphy is too perky, their family too happy and perfect. It scares Carley and she doesn’t know how to handle it. She had no idea life could be like it was sometimes portrayed in the movies. Sure the boys fight sometimes and Mr. Murphy doesn’t seem to like her much but all in all its worlds above the life she came from.
Carley is a fantastic character.  She has some OCD-like tendencies she uses to help her cope like looking for patterns in words and numbers she finds (believe=lie (right in the center!), silent=listen, friend=end) that give us a little insight into the way she thinks and processes.  She's angry, hurt and bitter with some snarky and rebellious proclivities but rather than letting that dictate who she becomes she finds ways (with help from those around her) to deal with the emotions and grow from her experiences. She does this most effectively when she begins to realize that she's not the only one with problems.  Stepping outside of herself and helping the people around her transforms both herself and the person she is helping.

Carley's forced to make some tough decisions and despite the practically perfect world the Murphys seem to live in things are not all sunshine and unicorns and the ending, while satisfying and right, is not a neat and tidy typical 'happy ending'. I appreciated the author keeping it realistic and hard and not failing us all with something trite and shallow.

Here's a sample of Carley's voice throughout the book:

 She picks up the backpack that Family Services gave me, which has a stuffed giraffe, a toothbrush, and a pair of bright yellow fairy pajamas that remind me that there are worse things than death. The stuffed giraffe is good, though. Anyone who has had her whole life shredded in one night should have a stuffed giraffe. (6)

It’s like when Mrs. Murphy kept trying to get me to try Hawaiian pizza. I thought it sounded gross. But I finally tried it, and I love it. I guess sometimes you don’t know what you want because you don’t know it exists. (154)

“So what are you doing?”

“Do you mind if I ask about what?”
“My new book. It’s called Giving Tree Meets Chainsaw and Becomes Coffee Table.”
“Oh boy.” She takes a deep breath. “So we’re in that kind of mood, huh?”

There’s a great section on The Giving Tree (see above) which I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with and many a shout out to Stephen Sondheim’s Wicked which I love, love, love. There are countless mini-lessons on unconditional love and learning not to judge on appearances that she learns from the people she interacts with but they blend seamlessly into the story and don't feel preachy.

I loved getting into Carley's head.  Her story made me ache for her and so many who are real pieces in 'the system' of foster care and family services.  I found myself praying that there would be enough Murphys out there to find them all. Highly recommended!

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