Doll Bones by Holly Black

  • Title: Doll Bones
  • Author: Holly Black
  • Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books
  • Year Published: 2013
  • ISBN: 1416963987
  • List Price: $17.99
  • Page Count: 256
  • Age Range: 10-14
  • Genre: horror/speculative fiction
  • Award(s): Newbery Honor Book; Carnegie Medal Nominee for Young Adult

Author information: Holly Black has written a number of novels for both young adults and children, as well as some in a graphic novel format. Her website includes contact information, biographical information, appearance information, FAQs, as well as information about and links to all of her titles. She also includes links to her livejournal and blog, which discuss items of relevance in Black’s day-to-day life. She also has a section on her website discussing writing tips and techniques, complete with links and suggestions of other materials that might help an aspiring young writer.

Reviews: School Library Journal, Booklist, and Publisher’s Weekly all gave this title starred reviews. All of these reviews discuss the fact that Black does a great job creating characters that readers will care about, placing them on the precipice of leaving childhood behind. She portrays her characters realistically and readers will sympathize with their struggles. School Library Journal also articulates the fact that this book blends a wide variety of different genres and styles into one cohesive narrative, saying “this novel is a chilling ghost story, a gripping adventure, and a heartwarming look at the often-painful pull of adulthood”.

Readers annotation: Eleanor’s ghost wants to be laid to rest. And Zach, Poppy, and Alice must help her.

Summary: Zach has grown up with his two best friends, Poppy and Alice, and the three of them play elaborate fantasy game involving figurines, dolls, and action figures for years. Zach’s dad decides Zach is too old to be playing these games, so he throws out all of his game characters, which causes him to quit the game without explanation to Poppy or Alice. Although their game playing days might be over, Poppy confesses that she’s been having strange nightmares about the old china doll in her house, and she convinces Zach and Alice to accompany her on a real-life journey to put the ghost of the girl in the doll to rest. Nothing goes according to plan and the ghost becomes more sinister as the quest goes on, but eventually they are able to learn more about her past and locate the graveyard where she belongs and inter her remains. Along the way, they learn a lot about each other, growing up and leaving behind the innocence of childhood, and Zach reconciles with his father.

Evaluation: This novel defies easy categorization. It has elements of quest narratives, coming-of-age stories, horror, fantasy, and realistic fiction, all of which come together for a gripping and entertaining read. Zach’s struggles with growing up will resonate with all young readers who are trying to learn to navigate a new world in which they have more responsibilities, more freedom, and more anxieties about fitting in and being part of a larger social sphere. The relationship between Zach and his father is especially well crafted; the difficulties they have communicating and the confusion and resentment they both feel towards one another is believable, and the ending, in which they forgive each other and vow to work harder at their relationship, is an honest and not overly easy happy ending.  These struggles play out against an eerie backdrop of ghosts and late-night journeys that build suspense and keep the reader intrigued and wanting to read more. The ghost in the doll is truly creepy, and the way that the author refuses to decide for the reader whether the ghost and haunting the children experience is real or not leaves the story ambiguous enough that readers can come to their own conclusions.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality: 4/5 The themes explored in this book are important and relevant to many children, the plot is entertaining with a perfect amount of spine-tingling scares, and the characters and their relationships are honest and believable.
  • Popularity4/5  The creepiness of this book may deter some readers who scare easily, but those who enjoy some horror and darkness in their novels will love this book. The pacing, characterization, and plot are sure to find many fans.
  • Appeal factors: horror, speculative fiction, growing up, troubled parent-child relationships, creepy dolls.

Read-alikes: 

  1.  The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman is a natural recommendation for readers who love a dose of spooky in their fiction. Nobody Owens, the protagonist, grows up in a graveyard raised by ghosts, and has to confront the man who murdered his family. Like Doll Bones, this novel emphasizes the relationships between characters and the idea of growing up.
  2. Fans of the undercurrent of menace and urgency in Doll Bones would likely enjoy Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy by Karen Foxlee. Based on the fairy tale of the Snow Queen, this title highlights themes like friendship, courage, and perseverance.

Book talk ideas: The trailer for this book is delightfully creepy and would be a perfect introduction to a book talk about this book because it would let children know right away if the book will be too scary for them. If they love the trailer, the book will be a great fit for them, but if they thought it was too creepy, then it’s probably a good indicator that they shouldn’t check it out. After the trailer, talk about the friendship between the three main characters and how they decide to go on a modern day journey to put a ghost girl’s remains to rest. On the way, they learn a lot about themselves, each other, and growing up and leaving childhood behind.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. Do you think that Eleanor’s ghost was real? Why or why not?
  2. How do you think each of the characters change over the course of their quest? Who changed the most?
  3. Why do you think Zach’s relationship with his father is so strained?
  4. In your opinion, what is the hardest part of growing up? What are Zach, Poppy, and Alice afraid to lose by growing up?

Reason for reading: This book has been getting a lot of attention recently (not only did it win a Newbery Honor, but a lot of blogs have been talking about it, and it shows up on a ton of lists of “best children’s books of 2013) and I wanted to know what all the buzz was about. I also wanted to read something that was a little scarier, because I feel like I don’t have a lot of good recommendations for books when it comes to young readers who like reading books that will scare them a little. I felt this book would definitely fall into that category, and I wasn’t disappointed.

Additional relevant information: Holly Black also recently published a YA vampire book that has received positive reviews. Publisher’s Weekly interviewed her about this title, and she talks about why she decided to write a vampire book as well as her inspirations and writing process.

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin

  • Title: Where the Mountain Meets the Moon
  • Author: Grace Lin
  • Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
  • Year Published: 2009
  • ISBN: 0521021960
  • List Price: $17.00
  • Page Count: 288
  • Age Range: 8-12
  • Genre: fantasy/mythology
  • Award(s): Newbery Honor Book; more here.

Author information: Grace Lin has authored and illustrated books for a wide age range of children. Her website includes biographical information, contact information, and tour and event dates. It also includes a link to her blog, which focuses on activities and events that are releavnt to Lin’s life and work, such as a recent play production of one of her books and her advocacy for diversity in children’s books. Her webpage also includes links to all of her titles, as well as supplementary materials for parents and teachers such as craft ideas, discussion questions, and lesson suggestions.

Reviews: School Library Journal and Booklist both gave this title starred reviews. Both reviews comment upon the beauty of the illustrations as well as the use of Chinese folklore to further the plot and add texture and depth to Minli’s world. Booklist and SLJ agree that Minli is resourceful, smart., and an engaging protagonist, and that readers will be rooting for her. In regards to the novel as a whole, Booklist had this to say: “Children will embrace this accessible, timeless story about the evil of greed and the joy of gratitude”.

Readers annotation: Minli wants to change her fortune, but will the Old Man of the Moon tell her how?

Summary: Minli is a young girl who lives in the shadow of the Fruitless Mountain and works the fields with her parents. Her family is poor, and her mother often laments their lot in life, while her father tells her fantastic stories about dragons and adventures. Minli decides to change her family’s fortunes, and so she goes off in search of the Old Man of the Moon to ask him how to do so. On the way, she befriends a dragon, meets a prince, and spends time with a family that seems to have discovered the secret of happiness. When she gets the the Old Man of the Moon, he tells her she may only ask one question, so she sacrifices her answer about how to change her fortune in order to ask him why her dragon friend can’t fly. This decision turns out to answer her own question as well; when the dragon flies to the Fruitless Mountain, it becomes bountiful and her family prospers. Although her family becomes financially rich, Minli’s adventures taught them all that happiness with loved ones is the most important treasure of all.

Evaluation: This is an utterly charming book. Lin weaves the narrative of Minli and her family with short fables and folktales that turn out to be significant to Minli’s adventure, layering different types of storytelling and myths into one cohesive story. The use of different colors to differentiate between Minli’s story and the folktales is eye-catching and makes the narrative easy to follow and keeps the reader aware of what part of the book she is currently reading. Minli is an enjoyable protagonist and the reader wants her to succeed in her quest, and secondary characters, like the father and the dragon, are nice complements to Minli’s story. Minli’s mother is one of the more interesting secondary characters due to her harshness at the beginning of the novel and her transformation as she realizes what is truly important to her, which is her family. Lin presents a good moral message as well as uses themes like friendship, family, and the meaning of happiness throughout the novel, which gives the reader much to think about. The ending, which provides happiness for all of the characters, is welcome and sure to put a smile on any reader’s face. The artwork is stunning and richly detailed, and provides a wonderful complement to this delightful book.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality: 4/5  The use of storytelling within the greater narrative works well and enriches the novel as a whole. The characters are sympathetic and the happy ending is well-deserved.
  • Popularity: 4/5 Readers will enjoy the miniature stories within Minli’s tale, which break up the narrative into easily digestible pieces and factor into Minli’s story later on. The fantasy and mythology aspects of the novel will appeal to many readers, especially as it stems from a tradition (Chinese) that isn’t as prevalent in writing for this age group.
  • Appeal factors: mythology and folklore, dragons, families, happy endings, stories within stories.

Read-alikes: 

  1. Readers who want to delve deeper into stories told against a mythological backdrop may enjoy Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series. This series follows Percy, a modern day kid, who discovers that not only are Greek gods real, but that one of them is his father.
  2. For readers who enjoyed Lin’s fantastic story of Minli uses Chinese folklore as a backdrop, her book Starry River of the Sky would be a good fit. Like Mountain, Starry River follows a young protagonist and interweaves Chinese myths into the main narrative.

Book talk ideas: One way to approach this book talk would be to read one of the folklore stories out loud to potential readers, to give them an idea of how the book works. After doing that, tell readers that this novel follows Minli’s journey to change her destiny, and that stories like the one they just heard pepper the novel and influence Minli’s destiny. Also, possibly ask the audience if any of them have read other popular mythology/folklore stories, such as the Percy Jackson series, and suggest that this is a similar type of book but that it focuses on a different folkloric tradition: that of China rather than the more familiar Greek.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. Why does the author choose to tell stories within the main narrative? What effect does this have?
  2. Describe Minli’s relationship with her parents? Why is her relationship with her father so different from the one she has with her mother?
  3. What is the most important lesson that Minli learns on her journey?

Reason for reading: I wanted to diversifying the types of books I was reading for this project, and try to include other cultures whenever possible. I found this title on a list of Newbery books (possibly on Goodreads, but I don’t remember for certain) and was intrigued by reading a book with roots in Chinese folklore, and this book did not disappoint. Before requesting it from the library, I really knew nothing about the plot other than what I gleaned from the cover, so it was a pleasant surprise.

Additional information: Grace Lin has been very active in the We Need Diverse Books campaign. This campaign (which just occurred last week, May 1-3, 2014) was a social media call to action in support of diversity in children’s literature. It asked for people to photograph themselves with a sign expressing the importance of diversity in children’s books and then upload it to Twitter, followed by Twitter chat and push to encourage diversity in libraries and bookstores. Since this is a very recent campaign, I look forward to learning more about it and its impact over the coming months.

Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai

  • Title: Inside Out and Back Again
  • Author: Thanhha Lai
  • Publisher: HarperCollins
  • Year Published: 2011
  • ISBN: 0061962783
  • List Price: $16.99
  • Page Count: 272
  • Age Range: 8-12
  • Genre: historical fiction
  • Award(s): National Book Award for Young People’s Literature; Newbery Honor

Author information: Inside Out and Back Again is Thanhha Lai’s first novel. She does not seem to have a website, but it is possible to find information about her on the HarperCollins website. This includes a short biography, her educational experience, hobbies and interests, and a link to information about her book. The National Book Foundation has an interview with Lai on their website, in which she talks about the power of language in terms of self-expression and her hope that her novel will inspire others who have gone through similar experiences to tell their stories.

Reviews: This book received starred reviews from Booklist, School Library Journal, Kirkus, and Publisher’s Weekly. These reviews agree that the format of the novel is innovative and is one of its greatest strengths, and they agree that Lai’s portrayal of Hà is moving and provides an honest depiction of a young Vietnamese immigrant’s experience. Three of these reviews cite the humorous elements of Hà’s voice and how this provides a strong balance to the more serious and darker tones of the novel.

Readers annotation: Growing up in Vietnam during the war may be tough, but Hà thinks that living in Alabama might be worse.

Summary: Hà has spent her entire childhood in Saigon, but as the war increasingly threatens her family’s safety and way of life, her mother decides that they need to escape. Hà’s father, a Navy sailor, has been missing in action for years, but one of his friends tells her family about a ship that will be leaving Saigon and helps them flee Vietnam on it. After a long and uncomfortable voyage, their ship is rescued and Hà’s family decides to move to America. Their sponsor, a Christian Alabama man, lets them live with him and Hà and her brothers start trying to integrate into life in the South. Hà is not used to being “stupid” and not able to keep up in class, and many of the other students tease or threaten her. Hà eventually finds an ally in her neighbor Miss Washington, who tutors her and helps ease her transition into American life, and the novel ends with Hà and her family hopeful about the future and ready to build a new life in America.

Evaluation: The format of this book is the most obvious strength of the novel.  Hà’s story is told as a series of poems that are roughly in chronological order, and these poems are beautiful when taken individually, but they become a tour de force when combined. At first, the format can seem daunting, and the reader may not think that a strong narrative will be able to form with such a limited number of words, but the power of Hà’s voice and story transcend the format of the narrative and create a compelling plot. Hà is a sympathetic and relatable character, and readers will root for her success as well as feel badly for her troubles. The story also addresses themes that any child (or adult) can relate to, such as feeling like an outcast, being bullied, and being nostalgic for the past. Hà is a fully developed character who is portrayed with honesty; she is shown as being strong and smart and hardworking, but also as being conflicted and occasionally cruel and a bully herself. Aside from having a compelling plot and being written as heartbreakingly gorgeous poetry, this novel also provides a much-needed look at an immigrant’s difficulties adapting to life in a America, and does so with a fresh and unforgettable perspective.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality: 5/5  This novel is unique both in its subject matter and the format with which it tells Hà’s story. Readers will find themselves lingering over each short poem as well as absorbed in the larger narrative.
  • Popularity: 3/5  Although the poetry format of this novel is highly accessible and arguably easier for reluctant readers than a novel based in prose, some readers may be turned off at the sight of poetry and not want to read it due to its format. Those who do, however, will find Hà to be a compelling and likable character and will relate to her story, no matter what their personal experience with immigration or bullying may be. The novel encourages readers to think about larger themes of kindness, acceptance, and courage and how they may relate to their own lives.
  • Appeal factors: immigrant experience, poetry, strong female protagonist, humor, hopeful ending.

Read-alikes: 

  1. R. J. Palacio’s Wonder could be a good fit for those who liked reading about a child who was outcast from her peers because she was different. Like Hà, August is different, although his difference is not his race, but rather a physical deformity. He’s teased in school and doesn’t fit in, but, as with Hà’s story, this novel ends on a positive and hopeful note.
  2. For readers who want more on the subject of the immigration experience, The Weight of Water by Sarah Crossan could be a good fit. Although this book features a Polish girl who immigrates to England rather than a Vietnamese girl who immigrates to America, both protagonists have to struggle with alienation, adjusting to a new life, and absent fathers.

Book talk ideas: The major objection readers may have to picking up this book is also it’s greatest strength: the poetry. In order to dispell the myth that a book written in verse is inaccessible, read one or two of the stronger (spoiler-free) poems as a way to introduce the novel. Then discuss the plot, and how Hà is a girl who has had to leave the life she knew for an entirely different country, one in which she is teased, made to feel stupid, and does not fit in. Highlight the feelings that such a situation would raise, such as loneliness, fear, and nostalgia for an old life. Ask if anybody can relate to those feelings. Possibly end with another poem from the book.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. What could the papaya tree represent? Why is Hà so obsessed with this fruit and its tree?
  2. Hà has difficulty adjusting from being a top student to one who struggles in school. How does this adjustment affect her? How would you feel if you were at an academic disadvantage like Hà?
  3. Although never seen in the story, Hà’s father is a presence throughout the narrative. How does Hà’s father influence/haunt each character?

Reason for reading: This book was on quite a few lists of Newbery honors and best books for children lists, and it looked like it could be interesting. I read the synopsis and it sounded unique, and I’ve never read an immigration story about leaving Vietnam during the war. I actually missed the fact that the narrative was a series of poems and I’m glad I did because I may not have checked it out if I knew. I think that may be the toughest part about selling this book to young readers–there is a stigma associated with poetry that makes readers feel like it is less accessible than prose and they may be reluctant to give this title a chance.

Additional relevant information: Inside Out and Back Again is semi-autobiographical and in part based on Lai’s own experiences as an immigrant. Her sponsor also lived in Alabama, and took on Lai’s entire family, ten people in all. It took Lai ten years to learn grammatically correct English.

Princess Academy by Shannon Hale

  • Title: Princess Academy
  • Author: Shannon Hale
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury
  • Year Published: 2005
  • ISBN: 0756981808
  • List Price: $17.60
  • Page Count: 314
  • Age Range: 10-14
  • Genre: fantasy
  • Award(s): Newbery Honor book; ALA Notable Children’s Book; full list here.

Author information: Shannon Hale has written many books for young readers, most of them with female protagonists at the forefront. Her website includes her biography, contact information, writing history, and book recommendations as well as a links to information about all of her books. Her site also includes links to her blog, upcoming appearances, and tips about writing and links to games and stories that her fans may enjoy. Hale also has a blog post in which she discusses how many in the YA field are sick of certain tropes (love triangles, absent parents, complaining protagonists), but that these are used for a reason: they resonate with and represent a teenager population in a way that is true.

Reviews: School Library Journal and Kirkus both gave this title starred reviews, and Booklist also gave it a positive review, all of which can be found here. SLJ says, “each girl’s story is brought to a satisfying conclusion, but this is not a fluffy, predictable fairy tale, even though it has wonderful moments of humor”, and both other reviews also highlight the spunk and intelligence of the female characters and how those qualities help this book stray away from the traditional fairy tale genre.

Readers annotation: Miri has the chance to be a princess. But the question is: is that what she really wants?

Summary: Miri has always felt out of place in her village. While everybody else spends their days working in the quarry to produce enough linder to trade for supplies, she believes she is too small and weak to contribute, and she is deeply ashamed of this fact. Her life changes when dignitaries come to her rural mountain village with news that all young girls must participate in a Princess Academy and the kingdom’s prince will choose his bride from among the graduates from the Academy. Miri does not like the way the girls are treated at the Academy and protests, getting herself and others into trouble, but she does become a top student and learns a lot that can help her village and gets her selected Academy Princess. When she finally meets the Prince, she isn’t impressed, and he leaves the Academy without choosing a bride, which means that all of the girls have to stay at the Academy for another season. During this time, bandits attack their school and Miri once again shows her courage and quick thinking by saving everyone, using the villagers’ ability to “quarry speak” to alert the village to the girls’ plight. Eventually it is revealed that one of the girls grew up with the Prince and is in love with him, and when he returns to find her among the Academy girls he happily chooses her as his bride. Miri finds contentment in remaining in her village and teaching others all she has learned, and is happy at the prospect of a romance with her childhood best friend.

Evaluation: I enjoyed this book more than I thought I would. The title, Princess Academy, gives the reader a preconceived idea about what this book will be about, and for me, the title immediately turned me off to the book. Once I began reading, however, I found much to applaud. Miri is a complicated protagonist who struggles with feelings of inadequacy and a desire to fit in, but she also displays strong positive traits, such as courage, loyalty, intelligence, and self-sacrifice. She struggles with the question of whether she actually wants to be a princess and what that would mean, and ultimately she decides that she would rather improve her community and stay with her friends and family than move away for the glamour and glory of being royalty. Many of the other female characters are portrayed with similar complexity; Katar, an older girl, makes it clear that her desire to be princess has nothing to do with wanting to marry a prince, but rather is because she wants to travel and see the world. Portraying girls at a Princess Academy who have more ambition than just getting married to a prince is gratifying and one of the highlights of the book. However, much emphasis is placed on the romantic aspect of the book and prevents the characters from reaching a fully developed point. Even though Miri does not want to be a princess and marry the prince, she still has a love interest and it’s clear that Peder is one of her major reasons for choosing to stay in the village. Similarly, Britta, the girl who grew up with the prince, turns into a shaky, sick mess when he comes to visit and can’t even force herself to get out of bed. We discover that her backstory is that she was sent to the mountain specifically to participate in the Princess Academy and be married off, and even though it’s clear she’s a pawn in her father’s power games, she’s more than content to go along with it so that she can marry her prince. Also, the entire idea of a Princess Academy, from which a prince gets to select his bride from any one of two dozen willing girls, may rub some readers the wrong way, especially since the Academy ends up working exactly as intended and the prince does choose his bride this way. Overall, this novel does a good job of portraying strong female characters within the confines of a male dominated society in which they have no true agency, but Hale had the opportunity to do more to make this novel more empowering for girls and show that falling in love and getting married isn’t the only path a girl can take. This book was fun and stronger than I expected, but could have done more with its premise.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality: 3/5 This book is entertaining and has some complex female characters, but while it bends the expectations of the traditional princess genre, it never breaks them. The pacing of the novel and the obstacles and perils Miri and her friends face keep the reader engaged until the final page.
  • Popularity3/5  The title is the major deterrent of this book. Very few boys will even consider reading something with “princess” in the title, and some girls may balk at the prospect as well. Those who do read it will identify with Miri’s insecurities and will root for her success, and they will enjoy reading about her relationships with the other characters as well as her courage dealing with difficult situations.
  • Appeal factors: princesses, strong female protagonists, magical elements, romance.

Read-alikes: 

  1. Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine is a natural recommendation for readers who enjoyed a princess story with a little more substance and a stronger than usual female character. Like Miri, Ella takes control of her own fate and displays traits of ambition, intelligence, and courage.

Book talk ideas: I think the best way to book talk this book is to focus on how it differs from traditional princess stories. Ask the potential readers: what if you were forced against your will to train to be a princess, even if you weren’t sure you even wanted to marry a prince? What if you were locked in a closet with rats if you disobeyed, and soldiers guarded the gates so you couldn’t return home and see your families? This is what Miri faces when she’s told a prince will be coming to her rural mountain village to select his bride from the eligible girls of the town. Miri must use her quick thinking and courage to protect herself and her friends from the obstacles they face at the Princess Academy, and she has to decide what it is that she really wants.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. Miri says the most precious thing she owns is the week after she was born when her mother held her. Why do you think this is?
  2. All of the girls at the Academy have their own reasons for wanting to marry the prince. What are some of these reasons? What are some other ways they can achieve these goals?
  3. What do you think happens after the novel ends? Choose a character and write another chapter about what this character does once the book is over.

Reason for reading: This book was recommended to me by one of my co-workers, who is also getting her MLIS and has taken a class in which she had to read quite a few Newbery books. She said that this book was one of her most surprising reads because, due to the title, she didn’t expect to get much out of it or enjoy it very much. Based on her suggestion, I decided to check it out. When I was leaving the library with the book, another librarian saw I was carrying it and mentioned that she had read it and was surprised at how much she liked it. I had seen this book on lists of award winners but never even considered reading a summary of it because of the title, and it seems that I’m not alone in being put off by it, but I do agree that the book itself is much better than the title would imply.

Additional relevant information: This book would be an ideal candidate for a Blind Date with a Book/Don’t Judge a Book By Its Cover display. The cover (and, thankfully, the title) could be covered with a brown paper bag that has words and phrases about the book written on it. I think that someone would be more likely to pick up a paper bagged book that said things like “bandit attacks”, “there’s magic in the rocks”, and “spunky protagonist” than a book called Princess Academy, but then again, it’s impossible to deny that some girls just really love reading about princesses.

The Cricket in Times Square by George Selden

  • Title: The Cricket in Times Square
  • Author: George Selden
  • Illustrator: Garth Williams
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Year Published: 1960
  • ISBN: 0374316503
  • List Price: $17.99
  • Page Count: 144
  • Age Range: 8-12 yrs
  • Genre: fiction; animal fantasy
  • Award(s): Newbery Honor;
    American Library Association Notable Children’s Books; Horn Book Magazine Fanfare List

Author information: A short biography of George Selden can be found on the Macmillan website. Selden was the author of fifteen books and two plays, many of which continued to follow the adventures of Chester, Tucker, and their friends. A Cricket in Times Square was also made into an animated movie. Selden died in 1989.

Reviews: School Library Journal gave this book a starred review, and The Horn Book also gave it a positive review. Both reviews mention the whimsy and fun of the novel. Excerpts from both of these can be found on the Macmillan website. Unfortunately, due to the age of the title, it was difficult to find other reviews from the time period during which the book was released, but a recent blog post from SLJ included it on a list of the top 100 children’s novels.

Readers annotation: A little creature can make a big difference, even if he’s just a small cricket in New York City.

Summary: Chester Cricket has lived his entire life in the country, until he accidentally ends up on a bus that brings him into the heart of New York City. In Times Square, Chester meets Tucker, a mouse, and Harry, a cat, who help him adjust to life in the big city. Chester is taken in by a human boy, Mario, who feeds him and gets him a cage to live in. Mario’s family is poor and runs an unsuccessful newsstand in the subway station. In an attempt to repay Mario’s kindness, Chester begins to give concerts in the subway station, drawing huge audiences and making the family newsstand a financial success. Although he loves his new friends and has enjoyed his time in New York, Chester decides to return back to the country where he belongs.

Evaluation: Overall, this is a charming book with a few major problems for contemporary audiences. The characters are well-developed and sympathetic and the setting of Times Square provides a colorful backdrop for the antics of the characters. The illustrations by Garth Williams complement the storytelling effectively and make the story come to life while still allowing readers to fill in the blanks with their own imagination. The main concern with this book is in regard to the portrayal of Chinese characters. Both Sai Fong and his friend speak in a stereotypical dialect that transposes all of their “r”s into “l”s, among other things. There are also several uncomfortable mentions about Chinese food and customs that have not aged well and make the book appear more racist than the author probably intended. Both Chinese characters are kind and helpful to Mario, signalling that the author likely had good intentions when writing the book, but the racism cannot be ignored.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality: 3/5  While the plot and themes of friendship are still relevant to today’s readers, the dialect of the Chinese characters and racist undertones cannot be ignored, and make this an unsettling and often uncomfortable read.
  • Popularity4/5  In spite of its problematic portions, readers will enjoy the sticky situations Chester and his friends get into as well as the way Selden combines the human world with the animal world.  The characters all have unique personalities and Selden describes them in such detail that it becomes easy to develop a picture of them in your mind. Some readers may not like Chester’s decision to leave the city at the end of the novel, but assurances that there are sequels may mitigate this point.
  • Appeal factors: Anthropomorphic animals, New York City setting, themes of friendship, colorful characters.

Read-alikes: 

  1. The Mouse and the Motorcycle by Beverly Cleary could be a good suggestion for readers who enjoyed Selden’s anthropomorphic animals and themes of friendship. Those who liked the relationship between Chester and Mario will feel similarly about Ralph and Keith.
  2. For readers who liked the idea of a hidden side of New York City, The Borrowers by Mary Norton may be a good fit. The Clock family are tiny people who live in the floors of an English manor, and their lifestyle and relationship with the larger world of humans will remind readers of Chester and his friends.

Book talk ideas: Start by asking if anybody has been to New York and giving some perspective on the size of New York and Times Square vs. the size of a cricket. Talk about some of the adventures and mishaps Chester has, such as eating the $2 bill or nearly setting the newsstand on fire. Maybe also play some audio clips of crickets and have readers share their thoughts.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  • Do you think Tucker is a good friend? What are some of his good qualities? His bad qualities?
  • Would you trade being famous for being happy?
  • Do you think that the characters are happier at the end of the book than they were in the beginning?

Reason for reading: My roommate is a fourth and fifth grade teacher and she read this book aloud to her students during the fall because they were doing a unit about crickets. When I saw this title on the Newbery list, I decided to read this for the project because I know firsthand that it’s still being used in classrooms and is still getting a positive response from children.

Additional relevant information: When my roommate read this book aloud, she modified the language of the Chinese characters so that they no longer spoke in the racist dialect that appears in the book. Without modification, this could be a problematic novel to share with children, and it may be hard to recommend to readers without first explaining to them or their parents about the dated depiction of Chinese characters.

Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko

 

  • Title: Al Capone Does My Shirts
  • Author: Gennifer Choldenko
  • Publisher: Putnam Juvenile
  • Year Published: 2004
  • ISBN: 0399238611
  • List Price: $17.99
  • Page Count: 240
  • Age Range: 10-14 yrs
  • Genre: historical fiction
  • Award(s): Newbery Honor;
    School Library Journal Best Book of the Year; other awards listed here.

Author information: Al Capone Does My Shirts is the most famous novel by Gennifer Choldenko. Her website includes information about herself, upcoming tours, advice for writers, resources for teachers, and additional information about Alcatraz, Al Capone, and autism. An interview with Choldenko can be found here, in which she talks about her family, writing and publishing, and her research for the Al Capone books.

Readers annotation: Moose Flanagan’s family just moved to Alcatraz, home of the worst criminals in the country, and he is not happy about it.

Reviews: School Library Journal and Booklist both gave this novel positive reviews (accessible here). SLJ says that “the Flanagan family is believable in the way each member deals with Natalie and her difficulties, and Moose makes a sympathetic main character”, and Booklist also praises the novel’s well-developed characters. Both reviews also highlight the unique setting of the novel as an appeal factor of the book.

Summary: Moose Flanagan thinks his life is ruined when his parents move him from his home in Santa Monica to the island of Alcatraz, where the country’s worst criminals are kept. One of the reasons for the move is because the island is close to a special school that his parents hope his autistic sister, Natalie, will be able to attend, but after only one night there they are informed that she is not a good fit for the school and must return to live with her family. This means that Moose has to take on many of the responsibilities of taking care of her, including watching her during the day and letting her tag along when he spends time with friends. Further complicating his life is his new classmate and daughter of the Alcatraz warden, Piper, who concocts a variety of schemes that are sure to get Moose in trouble. As the novel progresses, Moose makes friends and adjusts to life on the island and Natalie’s social skills improve drastically. At the end of the story, she is admitted into a new school for older children, potentially as a result of Al Capone using his connections.

Evaluation: This book approaches the relationships between its characters with heart and honesty. Choldenko does not shy away from presenting difficult truths, such as Moose’s challenging and often uncomfortable relationship with his mother, his sometimes burdensome duties towards his sister, and the economic realities his family faces. The treatment of these subjects allows the reader to sympathize with Moose and makes him a character that readers are rooting for. Setting this story against the backdrop of Alcatraz Island works wonderfully, as the setting does not overwhelm the narrative but rather complements it by adding enriching historical detail and opportunities for plotlines. Some of the action centering around Alcatraz as a setting does get a bit cute and contrived–it’s difficult to believe that Al Capone would slip a note into Moose’s shirt or that a few kids could launder an entire classroom’s worth of shirts–and these moments are the weakness in an otherwise enjoyable book, and the reader will easily suspend disbelief for these plot points due to the power of the narrative voice and the tenderness of the relationships portrayed in the novel.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality: 3/5  The portrayal of the relationship between him and his sister as well as his family dynamic are the strengths of the novel. However, many of the plot points seemed contrived and stretched believability.
  • Popularity4/5  This novel is fast-paced and Moose’s voice is engaging and relatable. Although the book looks at a serious topic, there are moments of humor and friendship to lighten the mood. Readers who pick up the book because of the title may be disappointed, as the title leads one to believe there may be more gangster action than there is.
  • Appeal factors: Serious subject matter that is dealt with in an uplifting way, themes of acceptance, responsibility, family, and friendship, strong and sympathetic narrative voice, and local appeal for Bay Area residents.

Read-alikes: 

  1. Holes by Louis Sachar would be a good recommendation for fans of this book, because they both feature a strong male protagonist with a unique voice who is struggling with difficult situations. Readers who enjoyed the antics of Moose’s friends on Alcatraz will similarly enjoy reading about the characters of Camp Green Lake. Holes also has a happy ending, which will satisfy those who appreciated how nicely things wrapped up in Al Capone.
  2. For those who enjoyed reading about Moose’s relationship with Natalie, R. J. Palacio’s Wonder may be a good fit. This book follows August Pullman, who was born with a facial deformity, and his experience going to school and making friends for the first time. The themes of friendship and acceptance echo those found in Choldenko’s novel.

Book talk ideas: Raise your hand if you have ever visited Alcatraz. Now, can you imagine growing up there, while criminals were living right next door to you? That’s exactly what happens in this book. Discuss briefly the plot of the book, and potentially bring up some fun facts about Alcatraz and some of the colorful inmates (like, of course, Al Capone), who resided there.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  • Describe Moose’s relationship with his mother. Why do you think they struggle to get along?
  • In what ways do the main characters–Moose, Natalie, and Piper–change over the course of the novel?
  • Why do you think Natalie was admitted to Mr. Purdy’s new school?

Reason for reading: I’ve seen Al Capone Does My Shirts on reading lists for years, but something about the title made me think that it was going to be a little too cutesy and light for my interest. I decided to pick it up the other day because my library had a display of award winning youth literature up because the Caldecott and Newbery awards were recently announced, and I decided it wouldn’t hurt to give it a try. I was interested in the idea of a book told by the perspective of a child who lives at Alcatraz–as a Bay Area native and a current SF resident, I will say that I’m a sucker for books with local settings–and after the first chapter I was hooked and couldn’t put it down.

Additional relevant information: There are two other books in this series, Al Capone Shines My Shoes, and Al Capone Does My Homework. Gennifer Choldenko’s sister suffers from autism, which accounts for the deeply personal and tender way Moose and Natalie’s relationship is portrayed. She is also a Bay Area resident.