The Wild Robot Escapes

by Peter Brown
First sentence: “Our story begins in a city, with buildings and streets and bridges and parks.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Others in the series: The Wild Robot
Content: Same as the first one: short chapters, large print, illustrations. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore. This one, like the first, would also make a good read-aloud.

Spoilers for the first one, obviously.

When we left our fair robot Roz, she was being airlifted off her beloved island and transported back to the city. She was reprogrammed, and then sent out to be a farm robot, helping a family. Except, she wasn’t reprogrammed enough: she remembered her life on the island and her son, Brightbill, and while she wasn’t entirely unhappy at the farm — cows are good conversationalists and Roz had a lot to do — she missed her, well, home. So, she sets out to escape, which leads her on a whole adventure trying to get back to her island.

It’s much of the same as the first book here: intrusive narrator (but again, not so much that it was bothersome) and Roz is a very sweet character to root for. I liked her adventure this time, and the different things she saw and how her story spread out and paved the way for her to get back. The ending was sweet and satisfying at the same time, which was nice.

It really is a delightful story.

My Lady Jane

myladyjaneby Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows
First sentence: “You may think you know the story.”
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Content: There’s some mention of sex (it’s a “special hug”) but it’s completely off the page. Otherwise, it’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

You think you know the story of Lady Jane Grey, who was queen for 9 days. (And you probably do.) But Hand, Ashton, and Meadows have re-imagined it as a love story, a humor story, with a big of magic (there are people who can change into animals in this version of history). It’s charming.

The plot is somewhat irrelevant: there’s Edward, the king who dies and gives the throne to his cousin rather than his half-sisters. But, that’s really all there is of history. The authors go from there, letting characters live who should have died, giving characters romances and a future together. I’m trying not to give too much away, because it really is fun discovering how they twist history.

There is a bit of an intrusive narrator thing going on, but for the most part it works. It’s a silly story (actually the word I kept coming up with while I was reading was “adorable”), but it’s a silly that isn’t overbearing or dumb. Maybe it ran a wee bit long (I found myself losing interest about halfway through, but I didn’t put it down and it picked back up). But, it was a light, fluffy distraction for a little bit.

The Trouble with Twins

troublewithtwinsby Kathryn Siebel
First sentence: “And so it begins in front of the fire, the story of two twin sisters.”
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Content: There’s some neglectful treatment of kids and some awful parenting, but nothing physically harmful. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Arabella and Henrietta are twins (in some distant past). Arabella is the beautiful, smart, sweet one and Henrietta is… not. (Before I get too much further, the better sister story, if maybe a bit more mature for this age group, is Jacob Have I Loved which is one of the more powerful reading memories I have as a child.) Henrietta is neglected, ignored, unloved. And so when she tries to get attention by cutting Arabella’s bangs off (they seem a bit old for those kind of shenanigans, but maybe that’s me projecting), she’s banished to Great-Aunt Priscilla’s house. Where she’s basically Cinderella. That is, until Arabella decides she misses her sister and goes looking.

It’s kind of a Lemony Snickett/Roald Dahl feeling book, where there’s bad adults (but not quite as bad as Dahl) who are neglectful and hate children and it’s the good, long-suffering child who gets the reward in the end. And in that light, it’s a good little book. The thing that got me was the intrusive narrator. Usually, I don’t mind them. But, this time the framing conversation between a mother and daughter just grated. I think it was meant to be cute, but it just didn’t work for me, and as a result the whole book fell flat.

I think I’ll see if any of my Dahl kids are interested in this one; maybe it’s just me being overly sensitive.

The Wild Robot

wildrobotby Peter Brown
First sentence: “Our story begins on the ocean, with the wind and rain and thunder and lightning and waves.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Release date: April 5, 2016
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: It’s fairly large print, with illustrations. It’s good for third grade and up (and is in the middle grade section of the bookstore), but would make a great read-aloud for younger kids.

After a hurricane, the ROZZUM unit 7134 robot washes up on the shore of an uninhabited island. The robot is inadvertently activated by some otters, and Roz (as she introduces herself) comes on. She doesn’t know that she isn’t supposed to be on the island, so she sets about trying to figure out what this place is and how to fit in. She initially meets resistance from the animals: they call her a monster and try to run her off the island. But, through time and some cleverness, Roz learns to adapt. She makes friends with the beavers. She accidentally orphans a goose, but then adopts him as her son. She learns how to fit in.

There really isn’t much to this book; there’s a lot of narration and an intrusive narrator that I didn’t mind terribly much. Because of that, I think this would probably make a better read-aloud than one kids are going to want to pick up. That said, I tossed it in K’s direction for a book report, and so far she’s enjoying it. It helps, I think, that the chapters are short (some as little as one page) and there are illustrations liberally scattered throughout.

In the end, I found I really liked it. I came to really care about Roz and her relationship with the animals. And while I didn’t really care for the abrupt ending (sequel, anyone?), I cared about the journey. And it was an interesting mix of tech — Roz was able to use her computer database to find out answers — and nature — the winter was rough, animals (even though they were talking) died.

A very intriguing book, in the end.

Egg & Spoon

by Gregory Maguire
First sentence: “The heels of military boots, striking marble floors, made a sound like thrown stones.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s nothing objectionable, but it’s a bit long and slow for all but the most advanced middle grade readers. It’s not a Teen book, either, so it’s ended up in the no-man’s land of YA books (grades 6-8) at the bookstore. I’m wondering how it would go as a read-aloud, though.

Elena Rudina is a peasant in pre-Revolution Russia. Her father died in a freak accident, and her mother never quite recovered from that. Her oldest brother is a servant in the baryn’s household and is away in Russia. So when her other brother gets conscripted into the Tsar’s army, Elena decides she needs to do something about that.

Ekaterina is the daughter of semi-noble parents who have dropped her in a London boarding school and gone off gallivanting around the world. The only person who cares about her is her Great-Aunt Sophie, and she’s determined that Ekaterina is going to show up at the Tsar’s party for his godson and be presented as a possible match, which is something Ekaterina does not want.

So, it was quite fortuitous when Elena and Ekaterina meet by accident — the train stops in Elena’s village when the bridge is out — and then (again by accident) switch places. Each get exposure to a different world and are led on the adventure of a lifetime.

I really wanted to like this one. And I did, sometimes. I loved Baba Yaga in all her snarkiness. (In fact, I bookmarked a bunch of her lines. Like: “You’re not going to drink the Kool-Aid?” and “Dumb Doma remodels itself. A nasty habit, like binge shopping.” and “No wonder they call these fairy tales. Tolstoi woudl know better, and a fast train comign into a station would be involved. Blood, tears, regrets. All the fun stuff.”) I sometimes liked the adventure that Elena and Ekaterina were having. (Madame Sophia ended up being a favorite of mine as well.) But, something seemed… off… about this one. Usually I don’t mind intrusive narrators, but this time, he (though I wonder why Maguire chose that particular narrator) was annoying enough that I just wanted him to go away. And that (along with Baba Yaga) got me wondering if this is really a kids’ book, or rather a book for adults who like kids’ books. I found myself hard-pressed to come up with a kid who would enjoy this.

It reminded me most of The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in tone and style (though it’s much, much longer), And K really liked having that one read aloud to her. So, maybe there is some hope for this one. I just wish I liked it better.

The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two

By Catherynn M. Valente
ages: 11+ (I’m not sure the younger set would like this one. Just saying.)
First sentence: “
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Others in the series: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There
Review copy snagged off the ARC shelves at work.

It’s been a year since September has left Fairyland Underneath, and she aches to return. The Real World just isn’t as fun or as interesting as Fairyland. And she’s been told that she can return every year, so she waits. And waits. But no one comes. Until, one day, long after she’s expecting them, someone does come, but won’t let her in. So, desperate as she is, she breaks in. Which means she’s a Criminal. She finds that things aren’t the same as they were, encounters the Blue Wind (who’s quite obnoxious), gets sent on a Mission, and tries to fight a Yeti on the moon. Yes, it is as weird as it sounds.

But, even though there were passages I found amusing (most specifically, the description of the Lopsided Library) and characters (like the car Aroostook) I liked, I just wasn’t as charmed with this one as I was with the other two. Maybe it’s because September is Getting Older, and Valente tried to bring in not only romance (Saturday, the Marid, is in love with September), but also the Trials of Getting Older, and it just didn’t Work. (This book makes me want to Emphasize with Capital Letters. It’s an unfortunate side effect.) I skimmed more than I read, I rolled my eyes more than I laughed. I wanted to Love Ell the Wyvery and Saturday again; I wanted to Enjoy September’s journey. But my heart wasn’t in it.

I don’t know if that means it’s the writing or just that I’m getting tired of this series. Could be either. Or both.

(Just for the record: because this is a Cybils nominee, I’ve been asked to make sure y’all know this is my opinion only, and not that of the panel.)

A Grimm Conlcusion

by Adam Gidwitz
ages: 11+
First sentence: “
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Others in the series:  A Tale Dark and GrimmIn a Glass Grimmly

If you’ve read the other two books, you pretty know what to expect with this one. Some pretty grisly awesome bloody violence, a winding fairy tale-inspired story, with a very snarky narrator. This time, it’s twins Jorinda (YOUR-inda) and Joringle (YOUR-ingle) whose story we follow.

I should say up front that if C’s language arts teacher last year hadn’t been insistent on her students learning some of the more obscure Grimm tales, I wouldn’t have believed that this one was really based on a real fairy tale. But it is, and it’s one of the more, um, gross ones. See, the twins’ stepfather doesn’t like them, and so he kills off Joringle, makes Jorinda feel like it’s her fault, and then cooks Joringle and serves him to his mother. Seriously. Ew.

But, since that one is not enough, Gidwitz smashes it up with the real Cinderella (actually, the narrator’s side notes on the meaning of Cinderella — or, rather Ashputtle — is quite hilarious), Sleeping Beauty, and several tales I don’t even know. It’s all very gruesome, all very weird.

In the middle, however, this one turned… well… odd. Gidwitz went meta on me, and Jorinda and Joringle left the story world, and actually started interacting with the narrator, who turned out to be an elementary school teacher named Adam. He read the characters A Tale Dark and Grimm and In a Glass Grimmly in order to help them solve their current crisis. Additionally, the narrator/Adam got all moralistic on us. He had Lessons that Needed to Be Taught, and was actually — surprisingly — heavy-handed with them. And, for the first time in this series, I got pulled out of the story. The intrusive narrator was no longer funny and witty, but rather truly intrusive. And it bothered me. I didn’t mind how the story resolved itself; Jorinda and Joringle were actually good Middle Grade Heroes and did what they needed to do to resolve the story happily. But, after the point where they met the narrator, I wasn’t that interested in how the story resolved itself.

Which is too bad. Because, for the most part, this is a really good series. And I do like the way Gidwitz plays with the Grimm tales. I just wish he could have gotten there without bringing the narrator fully into the story.

(Just for the record: because this is a Cybils nominee, I’ve been asked to make sure y’all know this is my opinion only, and not that of the panel.)