Tuesday, August 26, 2008


ELVIS AND OLIVE by Stephanie Watson (Scholastic)

"Don't be fooled by people who seem boring. Even the most dull-looking people do all kinds of weird, interesting things when they think no one's watching."
Cross Pippi Longstocking with The Great Gilly Hopkins and you've got Annie, code name "Elvis," who strongarms the otherwise cautious Natalie, code name "Olive," into a summer of spying on the neighbors. From the moment we are dragged along with Natalie under the porch with the near-feral topless wild child Annie, we are drawn into her world of unlikely and outlandish stories, and readers will share Natalie's wish that they are true; but the real truth is that Annie's lies are covering a deep and secret hurt. Clever Annie knows she's not the only one with something to hide, and from an uninvited vantage point the girls witness a harmless jig of frustration danced by an unhappy businessman and the whimsical hobby of a retired army sargeant, the more dangerous admission of shoplifting methodology by a teen beauty queen, and finally, in an effort to prove to to Annie that she is capable of taking risks, Natalie bears witness to vandalism. When a few too many secrets are revealed for the community's comfort and Natalie's secret crush is on the table, Natalie has to think hard about what she can do to redeem reputations, and to recoup the unlikely friendship she has come to treasure.

This story walks the fine line between innocence and innocence lost in a way that is appropriate for the tweenagers walking that same line. With a style like a modern-day Carolyn Haywood, the swell of the story's plot builds steadily and the characters are both interesting but comfortably recognizable. Although this book sports two girls on the cover, the spy-theme and opportunity for classroom discussion crosses gender lines. When is it all right to tell secrets, or to keep them? Why do people tell lies? Why do we want to believe them? Why do parents sometimes disapprove of the friends we choose? Do opposites really attract? What are the lines we draw between friend and enemy? What are some different ways this story could have gone? In an overflow of girl-on-the-cover fiction, this stand-out is one that shouldn't be kept secret for very long, and this new author is definitely one to watch, with or without binoculars. (9 and up)

Also of interest:
AFTERNOON OF THE ELVES by Janet Taylor Lisle (Putnam)
A poignant and resonant Newbery honor book about a girl whose friendship with a poor but imaginative neighbor leads her to abandon the mores of the rest of her community. Is Sarah-Kate really an elf with an enchanted backyard, or a neglected girl with more on her plate than a child can handle? A beautifully wrought story about a girl who learns to form her own opinions, for better or worse, and a wonderful choice for reading circle and book club comparisons with ELVIS AND OLIVE. (10 and up)

And a couple other strong female protagonists join us on the fiction shelf:

JUST GRACE WALKS THE DOG by Charise Myracle Harper (Houghton Mifflin) In this stands-on-it's own latest in the "Grace" series, buddies Grace and Mimi determine that Grace has a better shot of having her folks say "yes" to a dog, so they set out to prove their pet care prowess with the help of a cardboard prototype. A chapter book nod to Dayal Kaur Khlasa's I WANT A DOG (the little girl in that story takes meticulous care of a roller skate), what sets this apart from the rest on the shelf is the empathy and carefully chosen words the friends extend toward one another. Refreshing! (7 and up)

BRONTE'S BOOK CLUB by Kristiana Gergory (Holiday House) Literary soul After moving from California to New Mexico, Bronte Bella starts a book club featuring ISLAND OF THE BLUE DOLPHINS (oh, don't you want to join?), but finds that making new friends is not as easy as it seems in stories, and getting the gathered to talk about the books and not each other is a whole other challenge. Though Sheila Greenwald's MARIAH DELANEY'S LENDING LIBRARY DISASTER will always be my favorite book about book clubs, Gregory's good humor will make her a favorite author, and distinct character prototypes will make Bronte's hard-won clique a hit with young TRAVELING PANTS fans. (9 and up)

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