When I first heard about this book, I just couldn’t believe it. How was it possible that there was a plot to steal Abraham Lincoln’s body from his grave and yet I had never even heard about it? I admit that I was not the best history student; I much preferred math and science because I was terrible at memorizing all those names, dates, and places… but this is something I’m sure I would have remembered! It didn’t surprise me in the least to see the depth and breadth of historical information that was included, since I’ve read other Steve Sheinkin books and listened to him speak about his research methods. But I was definitely impressed by the fact that, once again, he crafted a non-fiction book that read much more like a thriller than a textbook. This is a great read for anyone who is interested in learning more about the early days of the Secret Service, money counterfeiting, and other [not always so] “organized crime” in the late 1800s.
Abilene Tucker’s father, Gideon, sent her to live with an old friend for the summer, while he worked on the railroad. While she understood that life on the railroad was not suitable for a “young lady,” she knew she would miss her father terribly. Upon arrival, she was further disappointed to find that the town of Manifest was so dull. After growing up hearing so many stories about her father’s time in Manifest, she had expected it to be a grander and more exciting place. When Abilene found a hidden cigar box full of mementos, though, she found some of the adventure she had been hoping for. After all, there were even a few letters in the box that referenced a spy called “the Rattler.” When Abilene shared the letters with her new friends, Lettie and Ruthanne, they decided to work together to figure out who had been the Rattler… and then they received an anonymous note telling them to “Leave Well Enough Alone.” Yeah. Whoever wrote that note certainly didn’t understand that the surest way to get tween girls to work hard at solving a mystery was to basically forbid them to do so!
I liked the way Vanderpool wove together the stories of Abilene and her friends with the boys, Ned and Jinx, to whom the mementos in the box had belonged. It was very clever to reveal the past through both newspaper articles and “readings” of the mementos by the diviner, Miss Sadie. Not only did Miss Sadie’s storytelling help to provide details about Ned and Jinx that the girls could never have pieced together on their own, but it added a further layer of mystique as Abilene tried to figure out if Miss Sadie was truly “reading” the items or simply making up a story. I found it a bit painful to watch Abilene struggling to find any hint of Gideon’s existence in both Manifest and the stories Miss Sadie told, I liked the fact that readers are able to look back at the end of the story to see how the various story threads all truly came together. People who enjoy learning about the early 20th century will love the rich, historically accurate details. (Abilene came to Manifest in the 1930s and the stories of Ned and Jinx were from 1917-1918.)
I have several lenses through which I view the education system in our country. First, as a former student. Second, as someone who has completed a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and a master’s degree in library and information sciences with a concentration in youth services and public libraries. Third, nevertheless, is the role that has provided me a completely different [admittedly, more biased] view — mom to two children in public school. Based on my own experiences, the training I have received, the literature I’ve studied on best practices, the work I have done in schools and public libraries, and the ways I have seen my own children navigate the system, I feel extremely confident in my ability to speak about both the successes and shortcomings of recent educational reforms. And while I feel as though most of the reform in the last couple of decades was well-intentioned, I am both concerned about and disappointed by the general trend toward extreme standardization and hands-off learning because of the focus on high-stakes testing. This book spoke right to my heart!
Imagine that the school you attended had an all-seeing, computerized Vice Principal who could track every single student’s educational progress and behavior in real time. For Max, this is her reality. Every time her grades slip, every time she is late to class, and every time she breaks even the tiniest of school rules, the Vice Principal (aka computerized student tracking/evaluation system) Barbara updates Max’s student record. That might not be so bad if it weren’t for the fact that Barbara also constantly notifies Max’s parents, who are stressing big time and pressuring Max to turn things around before she ends up kicked out of her regular middle school and enrolled in a remedial program. School is nothing but stress for Max… but then Fuzzy shows up.
Fuzzy is a new student at Vanguard One Middle School. The thing that makes him different, nevertheless, is that he is not human; he is a robot. Sure, the school already had robots who perform routine janitorial and cafeteria work, but Fuzzy is something very new. Instead of being programmed for only a few specific jobs and functions, he is programmed with “fuzzy logic” so that he can attempt to adapt his code to the demands of being a middle school student. To help him with his mission, Max has been recruited as a student partner with whom he can interact. She agrees to help Fuzzy better understand the intricacies of navigating middle school, both literally and figuratively, and Fuzzy “decides” he wants to help Max as well. In a world where it seems like administrators would rather their students behave more like robots, you would think that Fuzzy would be welcomed with open arms. But it seems that Barbara is not a fan of the new Robot Integration Program. Perhaps it’s because she’s afraid Fuzzy will catch on to the fact that she seems to be so obsessed with better test scores that she may be taking liberties with student evaluations?
Children in the land of Quill are raised in a perpetual state of fear. They are expected to live by very rigid rules and too many instances of rule breaking could get them labeled as an Unwanted. Being told that you are “unwanted” may sound cruel in and of itself, but it’s actually much worse than that. There is an annual Purge, and the 13-year-olds are separated into Wanteds, Necessaries, and Unwanteds. All of the Unwanteds are then rounded up and sent to the Death Farm. So, what are these infractions that are worthy of getting a child sentenced to death? Anything creative, for starters — drawing and singing are absolutely not allowed. It is also particularly bad if a child displays any curiosity or, worse yet, questions authority and/or the status quo. After all, “Quill prevails when the strong survive.”
Alex has known for a long time that he was an Unwanted and that his twin brother, Aaron, was a Wanted. Though he knew that Aaron could have been labeled Unwanted right along with him, he accepted the blame for his brother’s drawing to keep him safe. Imagine Alex’s surprise, then, when he got to the Death Farm and discovered that it was actually a ruse. Mr. Today pretended to be the executioner of the Unwanteds, but he was actually a wizard who created a hidden land, Artime, in which the Unwanteds were encouraged to find their happiness and express their creativity. Had he only known the truth, he would have turned his brother in and actually saved him! Sadly, he is now forbidden to have any contact with his brother. They are ALL forbidden from returning to [or even contacting anyone in] Quill because it would surely endanger the entire land of Artime and all the people living there if the leaders of Quill learned that they had been fooled. But, how can he simply leave his brother in that terrible place? Especially knowing that another boy in Artime is looking for a way to sneak back into Quill to get revenge on Aaron. Surely there must be a way to save him…
Thank goodness my son started reading this series and insisted that I join him! All these years, I have been under the mistaken impression that the Warriors series was a lot like Redwall but with cats. Yes, there are rivalries and battles, but this is much more realistic than the very fantastic (in both senses of the word) Redwall series. Rather than being set in some fantasy world in which anthropomorphized animals build their own cities and battle against other anthropomorphized animals, this is a story about a house cat named Rusty who longs to live in the wild and joins a clan of feral cats called the ThunderClan. There are actually four clans of cats, and they have co-existed for a long time by following the rules and boundaries laid out by their ancestors. The balance of the clans is threatened, though, as the ShadowClan grows stronger and encroaches upon the hunting grounds of the ThunderClan. With all the action, adventure, and mystery, it’s no wonder I’ve had kids asking me for these books for so long… I just wish I would have followed their lead and read this sooner. If you’ve made the same mistake and haven’t yet read these books, I highly recommend you add this to your reading pile soon.
I’m so glad my library request for this book was fulfilled in time for me to post a review during Transgender Awareness Week! Though there are many YA novels that focus on the GLBTQ experience, some of which include transgender characters — like Almost Perfect and Beautiful Music for Ugly Children — I cannot think of a single book for middle grade readers (aside from George) that even mentions transgender people, let alone talks honestly about what it means to be a transgender child. I appreciated the way that Gino brought readers into George’s mind in order to demonstrate how the often-rigid gender roles and expectations in our society might affect trans children/people.
Though the existence of GLBTQ people is nothing new, our society still has a long way to go before many people in the GLBTQ community will feel accepted, let alone embraced. In addition to activists working toward recognizing and providing equal rights and protections for people of all sexual orientations and gender identifications, it is also extremely important for children to have access to stories like this. Not only so children can build an empathy for people who have different sexual orientations and/or gender identifications than themselves, but also so that ALL children can see themselves reflected in the literature they read. #WeNeedDiverseBooks is about SO much more than ethnicity.
I am almost embarrassed to admit that I had never read Hatchet before. I’ve handed this book out to countless kids operating under the mistaken impression that I had actually read it back when I was in elementary school. I mean, I clearly remember talking about it in 4th grade… But, as it turns out, I only knew the basic premise of the story and filled in the rest of my so-called memory with bits and pieces from another survival story we read at the time — My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George. Luckily, I decided to take the time to listen to this story to “refresh my memory” now that my son was reading it in school. (Oops!)
Brian was a fairly typical “modern day” kid. He spent most of his time on school and leisure activities, and he depended on adults much more than he ever realized. He wasn’t fat, necessarily, but he wasn’t exactly fit either. Finding food always meant going to the fridge or the pantry — at most, to a grocery store. So, when his flight to visit his father for the summer ended with a crash in the Canadian wilderness, Brian was not sure he had what it would take to survive. The only other passenger had been the pilot, and the plane crashed because the pilot had died of a heart attack. With nothing more than the clothes on his back and the hatchet [a gift from his mom] on his belt, Brian had to find both shelter and food enough to last until he was rescued… If he even *could* be rescued. Because no one, including Brian, knew exactly where his plane went down.
It’s no wonder Hatchet is the “gold standard” for survival stories. Paulsen masterfully balanced Brian’s hope and drive to survive with suspense surrounding the real-life dangers of the Canadian wilderness. I think this book would be an excellent precursor to lessons on disaster preparedness and survival skills, and it’s also sure to be a hit with kids who already enjoy wilderness-based activities like hiking and camping.