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Charles and Emma: The Darwins' Leap of Faith Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith by Deborah Heiligman

A surprisingly fascinating portrait of Charles and Emma Darwin, from the time Charles made up his mind to marry, until Emma’s death. They come to life vividly – their marriage, Charles’ work and his feelings about publishing a controversial theory, their children and home life, their illnesses and tragedies. Recommended if you want to know more about the Darwins or are looking for satisfying but not overwhelmingly long biography. This might appeal best to high schoolers and up, with the focus on relationships and family.

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In addition to the Mock Printz this January, I’m also going to a Mock Newbery workshop.  For some reason, I’m not as fired up about these titles, but it’s been a few years since I went to one (the infamous year of Criss Cross, which I couldn’t even bring myself to finish for the workshop), so I’m looking forward to it.  This is a longer, full-day workshop, so hopefully that will mean more time to discuss each title.  Here’s the list:

  • Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream by Tanya Lee Stone. Candlewick, 2009.
  • Heart of a Shepherd by Roseanne Parry.  Random House Books for Young Readers, 2009.
  • How Oliver Olson Changed the World by Claudia Mills.  Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009.
  • The Magician’s Elephant by Kate DiCamillo. Candlewick, 2009.
  • Red Sings from Treetops: A Year in Colors by Joyce Sidman.  Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, 2009.
  • A Season of Gifts by Richard Peck.  Dial, 2009.
  • When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead.  Wendy Lamb Books, 2009.
  • Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin. Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2009.

So far I’ve read When You Reach Me and A Season of Gifts, and out of the two my choice would be When You Reach Me.  I like that they’ve thrown some non-fiction and poetry into the mix, and all in all they’re fairly short books, which works in my favor when I’ve got two lists to read through.  I am disappointed that my personal favorite, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, didn’t make the list, but such is life.  I’ll update as I work through the list and add more reviews.

Also, for anyone who enjoys the whole Mock Newbery thing, the SLJ blog Heavy Medal is a must read.  They’ve discussed A Season of Gifts and When You Reach Me at length, and there are some interesting conversations going on about plot, style, nonfiction, age level, and where picture book texts fit into things.  Always thoughtful and occasionally riling – and definitely look at the comments.

If I Stay (Audio CD) If I Stay by Gayle Forman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
What’s the appeal of sad books, anyway? Why do some of us find it cathartic to have a nice weep over a story? Why is a teenager on the brink of choosing life or death after a terrible accident so compelling? Here, part of the appeal is that it’s tightly told. It’s heartbreaking but never maudlin, as Mia weaves reminiscences into the story of the accident. The flashbacks feel natural, connecting in small ways to what’s happening in the hospital without feeling too perfectly matched. There’s enough backstory to feel like you know Mia and her family, as well and her boyfriend and her best friend, but not so much that is distracts from the central question – will she stay? While I personally never doubted how it would end, the story of how she reaches that conclusion is compelling.

One relatively minor quibble with the story, which was probably made worse by the fact that I listened to the audio version. Kirsten Potter did an excellent job reading the story – she sounded like a teenager, and the quality of her voice matched what we know about Mia’s personality. Most of the story works well as a listening experience, especially the dramatic moments in the accident when you might be tempted to flip ahead a few pages in the print version. But the dialogue – oh, the poor dialogue! At first I blamed Kirsten, but then I realized that she was doing the best she could with what was on the page. The lines sometimes feel put into the characters’ mouths – especially Mia’s parents. They felt almost precocious, like Forman was trying too hard to make them hip and savvy and bright. Teddy suffered a bit, too, as well as some family friends. The teenagers, thankfully, felt more natural, but I’d be curious to hear if anyone else found the dialogue distracting.

On the whole, a moving story that avoids too much sentimentality, and recommended to high school girls, in particular, who like that sort of thing – although it’s not too girly, so I imagine it has a male audience, too.

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