As for the books:
First, I read When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead. Frankly, I should confess that I chose to read it first because I thought it would be the least enjoyable for me. The characters are in sixth grade, and I wasn’t sure that I would see it as a good fit for my junior high students. I was very pleasantly surprised by how engaging I found the book. In the opening of the book, the protagonist, Miranda, tells us that her mother has been invited to be a contestant on The $20,000 Pyramid gameshow. Cleverly, each chapter is titled like categories on the gameshow (“Things That Smell,” “Things You Forget”). I worried my students wouldn’t get it, but many of them claim to know a bit about $20,000 Pyramid and the rest of the rules are explained in the book. The real story, though, is that Miranda is revealing these facts in a letter to an unnamed person who predicted these events. During a time when Miranda is struggling to define herself (her best friend since babyhood, Sal, is not speaking to her after she witnessed a bully punch him), she begins finding notes left for her, offering her “proof” by revealing facts that nobody could know. One note tells her, “I am coming to save your friend’s life, and my own.” The desire to find out who is in danger, who is coming to save them, and whether the rescue will be a success makes this book a compelling read. With frequent references to A Wrinkle In Time, the answers became predictable a bit early for me, but the characters are interesting enough that wanting to know how they will figure it out was enough of an incentive for me to want to keep reading. I enjoyed this book far more than I thought I would and I felt that the characters seemed closer in age to my grade sevens or eights, so I would recommend it to them.
The book that I thought would be my more interesting holiday read was Fever Crumb by Philip Reeve. Fever is the protagonist. She was a foundling, adopted by the Order of Engineers in a future London. The Engineers value reason and logic, suppressing all emotion. They also believe women are irrational creatures, so there are no female Engineers, except Fever, who has been raised by the Order. This future world seems a bleak place. There have been a series of wars and invasions which have resulted in a world where technology, from electric lights to airplanes, have become the realm of archaeologists. Most recently, London was ruled by a race of beings called Scriven, who have genetic mutations that cause long life and markings on their faces. Londoners revolted and killed off the Scriven. In the opening of the book, an archaeologist named Kit Solvent goes to the Order of Engineers looking for an assistant to help him in a top-secret case. Fever goes with him on an assignment that involves helping Kit to unlock a mysterious room that once belonged to a Scriven overlord. When she gets there, she begins experiencing memories that are not her own, which seems to interest Kit even more than the room itself. Sounds interesting, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, perhaps because they deny their emotions, I found the characters unsympathetic. I couldn’t connect to them or care too much about their fates for at least half of the book. When I got to the point where Fever’s history is finally revealed, the plot starts moving along and I finally found myself interested. I can’t imagine many of my students waiting that long to get caught up in the story. Or perhaps I am just unwilling to forgive a book that has a setting of a pub called “The Polished Turd.”
My winner for this round is When You Reach Me.
But really, I am looking forward to receiving my next round of books.