Brand new review: Gabriel Finley and the Raven’s Riddle by George Hagen

By Ekta R. Garg

October 22, 2014

Rated: Borrow it

A young boy learns about his destiny as someone who can communicate with ravens. When he tries to use his special power to find the father who disappeared under mysterious circumstances, the boy realizes he will need his friends to help him figure out the problem. But several adults might have what it takes to stop them. Author George Hagen offers readers his first children’s book in the mostly charming Gabriel Finley and the Raven’s Riddle.

Eleven-year-old Gabriel Finley loves riddles, although he knows other kids don’t. Gabriel grew up with a father who challenged him all the time with riddles, helping him figure out the harder ones and celebrating with him when he got them right. But three years ago Adam Finley disappeared. Although Adam’s sister and Gabriel’s aunt, Jasmine, has become Gabriel’s guardian and loves him, Gabriel misses his father and wants him to come back.

Across the street from Gabriel’s New York home, a mother raven nurtures her young chick and protects it from the valravens, the sector of birds that have accomplished their bid for immortality by acting in their own selfish interests. As the chick gets bigger and stronger, he comes to understand that he has a special place in the world of the ravens. More than that special place, the chick learns he may harbor the abilities to help his own species and the human race at the same time.

Events bring Gabriel and Paladin, the young raven, together. As they teach one another through their special communication, they begin to figure out that Adam Finley’s disappearance may serve as a link between ravens and humans. By building a slightly questionable alliance with another human/raven pair, Gabriel and Paladin (accompanied with gusto by Gabriel’s friends) embark on a quest to bring Adam home and save the world.

The book marks author George Hagen’s debut as a novelist for children; he has published books for adults with success. Several elements in Gabriel Finley… may also lead to a modicum of success in this target audience. His main characters come first on that list of elements.

Hagen has created in Gabriel a likeable protagonist, invoking a sense of sympathy for the child without tipping the balance in favor of melodrama. Gabriel’s friends, too, will make readers smile. Abby, the next-door neighbor, becomes a steadfast companion for Gabriel, encouraging him and never questioning the facts he shares about his connection to the ravens. Pamela, the violin prodigy, stands in as the reluctant participant. Somes, the boy who bullies Gabriel, turns into the ally who helps when it counts the most.

Pamela’s appearance in the book might feel slightly off track, however. Gabriel’s Aunt Jasmine offers Pamela and her mother, Trudy, shelter after a fire destroys their home. The link between Gabriel’s family and Pamela’s feels tenuous, and some readers who excel at anticipating the story might keep looking for Trudy to be more than an annoying houseguest. She never really turns enemy, leaving that issue somewhat unresolved.

Also, some might question whether Gabriel really needed three friends to help him on his quest. Hagen may have wanted to offer his readers familiarity in stock characters, and for the most part the children perform their parts well. An ending that feels a little abrupt might leave readers wondering exactly what happened, but Hagen may have left it open for a possible sequel.

The story will keep readers engaged, however. It goes from one scene to the next with somewhat predictable movements. For its target audience predictability may not count as a negative factor.

The highlight of the book comes in the riddles. Hagen has offered a variety of them: some in verse, some humorous, several puns. By the end of the book readers may look forward as eagerly to the riddles as they will to the book’s conclusion.

For the most part, I think readers in Hagen’s target audience will enjoy Gabriel Finley and the Raven’s Riddle.

Second book review for today: My Mother’s Secret by J.L Witterick

By Ekta R. Garg

October 15, 2014

Rated: Bookmark it!

In the midst of a war a woman risks her own life and her daughter’s life to help others. She hides people when they seek sanctuary, and she doesn’t turn anyone away—teaching her daughter some of life’s most important lessons in the process. J.L. Witterick takes a real story of the Holocaust and uses it as the basis for her sparse but powerful novel My Mother’s Secret.

Born to a Ukrainian father and Polish mother, Helena grows up in Germany with her brother, Damian. Although their father often exerts his strong will over their mother, Franciszka, Helena and Damian learn to share the good things in life with each other and their parents. When their father expresses pro-Nazi views at the beginning of World War II, however, Franciszka knows she can’t stay with him anymore. She doesn’t agree with the Nazis, and she doesn’t want her children growing up with that ideology. Her husband makes it clear that if she leaves she shouldn’t come back.

They move to Poland to the small town of Sokal, and for a time Helena feels safe. She gets a job and meets a man who catches her interest, and he begins to reciprocate. Helena begins to believe that life will get better, that moving to Sokal will mean better things for all of them.

When tragedy takes Damian away from them, Franciszka and Helena almost buckle under their grief. But even the grief of losing a son doesn’t diminish Franciszka’s compassion for others. Despite the fact that Sokal is a small dot on the map of Poland, the town isn’t immune to German invasion. Soldiers arrive, and the local Jewish population feels threatened. Some of the Jewish residents come to Franciszka for help, and Helena watches as her mother does what she can to help those persecuted for their cultural heritage.

Franciszka and Helena hide two families and a single solider, but none of the refugees know about the others. Better to keep them safe by keeping them ignorant, Franciszka says, and Helena sees the truth of this. She lives with a constant fear of getting caught, but she understands that her mother made the right choice by saying “yes” every time someone knocked on their door in the middle of the night.

Using viewpoints that toggle between Helena and the people she and her mother help, author J.L. Witterick tells the story in My Mother’s Secret with short chapters that almost read like diary entries. Witterick avoids detailed descriptions, which lend the novel a sparse feel in its opening chapters.

Readers might need several pages to get into the novel’s pace, but the sparseness lends to the book’s dramatic impact. At the end the story will leave a strong impression as only stories about the Holocaust can. Only 60 of Sokal’s 6000 Jews survived the war. The real Franciszka and her daughter saved 30 of them.

Knowing that, I highly recommend My Mother’s Secret.

Brand new review: Mix It Up! by Herve Tullet

By Ekta R. Garg

October 15, 2014

Rated: Borrow it

The author of the popular children’s book Press Here has given children another reason to interact with books. Following a familiar layout, Mix It Up! introduces the idea of mixing colors and watching what happens when those colors get smeared, squished, and (what else?) pressed into one another. The result is a book that lives up to its predecessor with a minor hesitation.

For those unfamiliar with the first book, Press Here asks its readers to watch what happens through the pages when they touch fingers to various drops of color. Dots of paint multiply and divide, slide from one side of the page to another, and even grow, and all of these things happen only when the reader follows the book’s commands. Hailed by many media outlets as a book that would give the iPad a run for its money, author Herve Tullet encourages children to relate to Press Here in a way that delights and surprises its target audience.

Mix It Up! follows a similar format but with more intention. Kids will start the book with an invitation that says, “It’s that time again,” sure to induce grins. This time, however, the book starts with a gray dot and uses the dot as a call to action to invite other colors to join it on the page. Soon enough large primary color blots dominate the spread, but this time the blots really do look like paint blots. Tullet invites kids to rub one color onto the next, introducing and reinforcing the concepts of mixing primary colors to create secondary ones.

Tullet instructs readers to start by dabbing one color onto the next, but within several pages he encourages kids to smear the colors into one another. The result brings spreads similar to what children might create in introductory art classes as they explore paint for the first time. Like Press Here, Mix It Up! revels with minimal text in what the reader can bring to a book that always encourages imagination and whimsy like only the best teachers can.

The one minor hiccup comes when Tullet tells kids to close the book in an effort to “smoosh” colors together. Younger readers might fumble for a minute or two to find their page again when they’re done “smooshing,” causing a small interruption in the reading process. Because this isn’t a board book, it makes more sense from a tactile standpoint for readers to close the book. Pressing two pages together could possibly cause the pages to come out of the spine after repeated readings. But some readers will most certainly need an adult close to help them find the pages they’d just pressed to continue with the fun.

Despite the small logistical challenge, Mix It Up! will certainly encourage readers to come to books with an active mindset. Subtle reminders, like fingerprints and paint smudges at the edges of the pages reinforce that mindset. The book does what the best books always do: it offers readers a chance to participate in the discovery process of a good story.

I recommend Mix It Up! for all children who enjoy reading and who expect their books to delight and amaze them.