Book Review: A Different Day, A Different Destiny by Annette Laing

February 2, 2010

Yesterday, I featured an interview with author Annette Laing along with a giveaway of her two books on time travel for middle grade readers, Don’t Know Where, Don’t Know When and A Different Day, A Different Destiny. There’s still time to enter the drawing (until midnight PST tonight) for the books. You can also read my review of Laing’s first book, Don’t Know Where. Here’s my review of A Different Day, A Different Destiny:

Hannah, Alex and George are back in a second time-traveling novel for kids, A Different Day, A Different Destiny by Annette Laing. Readers first met the three in Don’t Know Where, Don’t Know When while they traveled from modern-day Snipesville, Georgia, to World War I and World War II England. This time they are headed even further back, to 1851, and all three land in different places.

Alex stays in Georgia, with its slaves, cotton plantations and Savannah businesses. Brandon ends up in a coal mine in northern England, and Hannah finds herself working in a cotton factory in a small Scottish town. This story is grittier and more frightening for the characters than the first. Since they travelled to different places, they can’t share their experience and their fears of returning to their normal time with each other.

They are also finding out about the privations suffered by the lower working class people of the time and the hardships of slaves. Food and extra clothing is scarce, as is time off from backbreaking work. As they each find ways to earn their keep, readers get a glimpse of the social conditions of the time when Western society was shifting from mostly agricultural to mainly industrial work. For the workers, it was a time of exploitation in many ways until they were able to earn more rights through labor laws many years later.

While Don’t Know Where, Don’t Know When felt more lighthearted, A Different Day, A Different Destiny has more depth. I felt as though I learned quite a bit about the mid-1800s and what it was like to live then. And I felt the characters, in their second time around with time travel, were more aware of the culture they were temporarily part of. As Hannah, Alex and Brandon travel around and search to find each other as well as figure out what they need to do before they can return home, they learn a lot from being around people with all levels of social standing and they observe expectations people have of members of a certain social class.

Readers will delight in the surprising plot twists that connect this story to the one that came before. And they’ll look forward to seeing how the story unfolds in the next book in the series. I recommend this book and the series to mother-daughter book clubs with girls aged 9 to 12.

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Book Review: — Don’t Know Where, Don’t Know When by Annette Laing

January 26, 2010

When Hannah and Alex move to Snipesville, Georgia from San Francisco with their father they are incredibly bored and somewhat resentful. Their mother has died in a car accident, and when they leave California they also leave their grandparents behind. But their dad says he’s being transferred, so off they go to an area of the country totally alien to them.

To occupy their time, their dad enrolls them in summer camps at the local community college, which is where they meet Brandon. None of the kids really wants to be in the camp they signed up for, so they sneak away and hide out in the library. But something odd happens when they leave to go home. The community college buildings disappear, their clothes change, and they suddenly find themselves outside of London during World War II. Mistaken for children being sent by their parents to the countryside to escape London’s bombings, they find an ally in a woman they recognize as a professor at the community college they just left.

So begins the adventures in Don’t Know Where, Don’t Know When, Book 1 of The Snipesville Chronicles by Annette Laing. Hannah and Alex are billeted with a local couple who don’t seem happy to have them. Brandon, who is black, ends up being singled out and runs away, then taken to London by Mr. Smedley, who is with the Ministry of Health. When London is bombed, Brandon ends up going even further back in time to 1915 and the days of World War I.

These time traveling kids are lucky: their clothes and accents change and they have money in their pockets. So while their sensibilities are modern, they don’t stick out right away. The professor occasionally shows up to check on them, and she gives them clues about tasks they need to complete before they can go home. Don’t Know Where, Don’t Know When is like The Magic Tree House for older readers in some ways. A clue to a former time shows up in their current lives, and suddenly they are transported back to that time to solve a mystery.

I really liked Alex and Brandon’s characters. They were smart and inquisitive, and while they occasionally slipped up and said things that didn’t fit with their times, they were always aware of their mistakes. Hannah was hard for me to like as a character. She didn’t exhibit much curiosity about the time or place she was in, and she didn’t care if the things she said were out of time and place. But I suspect that kids reading this books wouldn’t have the same concerns about Hannah that I did. I think girls and boys aged 9 to 12 are more likely to see this is an adventure and happily read about what all three kids experienced when they went back in time.

Don’t Know Where, Don’t Know When gives a great sense of the people of wartime England. The kids realize that while they know Hitler eventually loses, the people around them don’t know that. The bombings and shortages and insecurity everyone feels are very real. Mother-daughter book clubs that read this book can talk about the historical time period as well as the fantasy of time travel.


New Book Review: The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly

January 19, 2010

The summer of Calpurnia Virginia Tate’s 11th birthday was a hot one. Everyone in her large family suffered from the heat in their Fentress, Texas home, but as Calpurnia was the only girl in a family of seven children, she also found freedom during afternoon naptime. That’s when she stole away from her room and down to the river, where she floated dreamily in the cool water.

During her outings away from the noise of having six brothers, Calpurnia discovers the natural world and starts making observations about it in her notebook. She also screws up her courage to talk to her grandfather, a shadowy figure who spends most of his time by himself caught up in reading or scientific experiments. But when her grandfather discovers that Calpurnia’s interest is genuine, he begins to include her in his experiments and observations. When they believe they discover a new species of vetch, they send it in to the Smithsonian for judgment.

Calpurnia’s activities with her grandfather brings up a conflict with Calpurnia’s mother, who believes that in the year 1899 girls must prepare to be women who run households, and nothing more. That means cooking, sewing, knitting and tatting, all occupations Calpurnia abhors. As she struggles to follow her heart’s desire, Calpurnia must discover if there are options for women in her time who have interests other than the domestic.

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly is historical fiction that reveals turn-of-the-last-century times in rural Texas. It was a time not very far removed from the Civil War, and Calpurnia’s grandfather as well as many others in town fought in the war. The Tate family farms cotton, and they are wealthy by the standards of most people in town. They have a housekeeper and a cook as well as regular farm hands, and while the children have daily chores, they don’t have the responsibility of making the farm productive.

This was also a time when Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species was making an impact. It had been published for about 50 years, but his conclusions were still hotly debated, and as Calpurnia found out, some libraries refused to carry copies of the book. Each chapter begins with a quote from Darwin that’s applicable to the action to come. As the book progresses, Calpurnia grows in her ability to understand the people and the world around her through observations made with a microscope and her regular vision.

This book is sure to delight mother-daughter book clubs with girls aged 12 and up. Discussions can center on the differences between life for girls and women in 1899 versus life now, living up to the expectations of your parents versus following your heart, and scientific experiences. Girls may even find inspiration for a school science project, and groups can even tie in craft or sewing projects. I highly recommend it.


Book Review: A Season of Gifts by Richard Peck

December 29, 2009

Grandma Dowdel’s back, only this time she’s known as Mrs. Dowdel to the Methodist preacher’s family that just moved in next door. The family, which includes three children, has been relocated from Terre Haute, Indiana to take over what is to be a new Methodist church but what is now a run-down building with no windows, a deteriorating roof and no congregation in a small Illinois town.

As family members work to adjust to a new life, gruff old Mrs. Dowdel next door seems to know exactly what each needs. Bob, who tells the story, is the middle child on the verge of puberty. He’s the easy target of bullies and in need of confidence as well as friends. Phyllis, fourteen going on twenty, is appalled at having to start high school in a place where she knows no one. Her obsession with everything Elvis leads her to take up with an unsavory character and start lying to her parents about where she’s going and what she’s doing. Six-year-old Ruth Ann is starting first grade, and she’s searching for someone to look up to. The dad, of course, needs a congregation, and the mom needs help keeping them all functioning well.

Fans of A Long Way from Chicago and A Year Down Yonder will be happy to read more about Grandmas Dowdel’s schemes to influence her small town and the family next door for the better. She’s just a gruff as ever, but older now. The gifts she bestows are not the kind you can wrap and put under a Christmas tree, but they are the kind no receiver would seek to return. Peck is a master of subtle storytelling, letting the reader reach conclusions about the characters along the way. He’s also superb at bringing bygone times to life, and in A Season of Gifts he deftly captures life in a small town during the late 1950s.

I read this book aloud to the whole family, which includes my husband and two teen daughters. We all loved it, something rare for the four of us with our different tastes in books. I highly recommend it for family reading as well as for children aged nine and up. Buy this book now, even though Christmas has just passed. Then pack it away with your Christmas decorations and be pleasantly surprised when you pull it out next year.


Book Review: Fern Verdant and the Silver Rose by Diana Leszczynski

December 18, 2009

Both of Fern’s parents, Olivier and Lily, are world-famous botanists. In fact, Lily’s uncanny ability to help nearly extinct species keeps her constantly on the go to exotic locations. But Fern isn’t happy always playing second fiddle to plants. For many years she has wanted nothing to do with nature and the outdoors.

That’s especially true once her parents move to the fictional town of Nedlaw (a play on Walden?), Oregon, where Fern feels out of place among the more glamorous students with cosmopolitan working mothers at her school. She’s downright embarrassed by her mother’s clothes, and the fact that her hair always seems to be a bit wild. So when Lily leaves on another trip to help another plant, Fern doesn’t even say goodbye—something she regrets when Lily disappears and is presumed dead.

Soon, though, Fern discovers that she shares a gift her mother passed down to her. Plants can talk to her, and she can talk back. She finds out that her mother is alive, being held captive in a cave somewhere far away by an evil man who wants to manipulate her gift. How will Fern find her, especially when her father has her committed to an institution after he sees her conversing with a willow tree? And how can she make anyone understand her certainty that her mother is still alive, when she can’t tell anyone about her ability to communicate with plants without losing her gift?

Fern Verdant and the Silver Rose by Diana Leszczynski recounts Fern’s adventures as she seeks to save her mother and nurture her blossoming gift. Her travels find her in the clutches of a deranged psychiatrist who hates children, and on a boat at sea with a group of orphans. During her search she is both hastened and hindered from reaching her destination by members of the plant world. Along for the ride is a single petal from the silver rose Fern’s mother was helping when she was kidnapped.

There’s a strong message of respecting nature and all it has to offer, and the book won the 2009 Green Earth Book Award Honor. To be certain, there are many “green” messages, but Fern Verdant doesn’t feel at all preachy as it shows Fern learning how to use her talent for good.

You’ll be happy to accompany Lily on her quest to find her mother, be reunited with her father, help the orphans and save the silver rose. While girls aged 9 to 12 will enjoy Fern’s adventures, their mothers can also appreciate how Leszczynski pokes fun at many aspects of the adult world, including psychiatrists, psychiatric facilities, lifeguards, spy agencies and scientists who may be too smart for their own good. Moms may also be able to prompt discussion of why teen girls often get embarrassed to be seen with their moms, and how moms and daughters can learn to appreciate the things that are important to each of them.


Book Review: Al Capone Shines My Shoes by Gennifer Choldenko

December 16, 2009

It’s 1935 on Alcatraz Island. Al Capone is The Rock’s most famous prisoner among a number of notorious criminals. He’s also a constant fascination for the families of the guards, who live in houses on the island next door to the cellblock.

Moose Flanagan is the son of one of those guards. He’s adjusting to life without his autistic sister Natalie, who has just been accepted into the Esther P. Marinoff School, a place her parents believe will help her learn how to function better in society. Moose is sure Al Capone pulled strings to get Natalie in after Moose wrote a letter asking for his help. When Moose gets a note in his laundry, he knows Capone is asking for a favor back. But how can he fulfill the request without getting his dad fired and the whole family exiled off the island?

Al Capone Shines My Shoes by Gennifer Choldenko is a charming follow-up to her Newbery Honor winner, Al Capone Does My Shirts. You’ll fall right back into Moose’s story and life on Alcatraz, with its strict regulations for prisoners, guards and civilians alike. This time Moose is trying to navigate his conflicted feelings for Piper, the warden’s daughter, and keep all his friends happy. He also has to determine where to draw the line with the cons who perform maintenance jobs in the homes: can he trust these men who for the most part seem like regular people, or should he keep their past crimes in mind when he interacts with them? I highly recommend this book for mother-daughter book clubs with girls aged 9 to 12.


New Book Review: Water Steps by A. LaFaye

October 22, 2009

Water Steps

Ever since she nearly drowned in a storm that took the lives of the rest of her family, Kyna has had a crippling fear of the water. Only three when she was rescued by the couple who became her adoptive parents, Kyna has spent the seven years since then learning to take water steps—small victories that help her get over her anxiety from even simple things like washing her hands.

Mem and Pep, Kyna’s adoptive parents, are patient with her, supporting her efforts and always there to encourage every new water step she takes. But Kyna is dismayed when they book a house by a lake for the summer. Don’t they know she’s not ready to take that big of a step yet?

Despite Kyna’s determination to stay as far away from the lake as possible while she explores the forest instead, she finds herself longing to overcome her fears once and for all so she can stop the limitations she puts on herself.

Don’t be put off by what may be a gloomy-sounding premise: Water Steps by A. LaFaye is delightful to read. Kyna has experienced so much pain and loss, but she’s surrounded by love and hopefulness too. Just as Kyna’s adoptive parents fill her with stories of magical creatures from their native Ireland—silkies, fairies and leprechauns—her story has a hint of magic as well. You’ll find yourself cheering for Kyna with every water step she takes. And you’ll love the Irish myths woven into the story along with a little bit of mystery too.

Good discussion points for mother-daughter book clubs reading Water Steps include overcoming fears, friendship, acceptance, patience and courage. Recommended for book clubs with girls aged 9 to 12.

Read on to find out more about A. LaFaye in a mother-daughter book club author interview.