Creative Books for Young People
Akimbo and the Snakes
Written by Alexander McCall Smith
Illustrated by LeUyen Pham
Bloomsbury Children's Books, 2006, $9.95
If you're looking for creativity and variety, head to the children's and young adults' sections of the bookstore. There's something for every taste, including these three diverse selections.
"Akimbo and the Snakes" is for the younger reader who is ready to chew on chapter books, or for an older struggling reader. With short, suspense-building chapters, realistic drawings, and friendly type-size and spacing, the book invites the child to the story.
Set in Africa, the plot should entice any animal lover who dreams of Crocodile Hunter-type adventure. Akimbo, the son of the head ranger at an African great game reserve, visits his uncle Peter while on school break. It's a dream trip for Akimbo, since his uncle runs a snake park: Akimbo thinks his uncle has the greatest job in the world.
Various types of snakes are introduced as Akimbo takes on the responsibility of feeding different species and tracking their eating habits. When the park is notified that a green mamba, one of the most poisonous snakes in Africa, has been spotted in a nearby town, Uncle Peter recognizes Akimbo's maturity by asking him to go along for the snake hunt.
The thrill of stalking a mamba and breath-holding when the mamba slithers around Akimbo's feet should help the younger readers make it through some of the larger vocabulary words.
By Bonnie Shimko
Harcourt, Inc., 2006, $17
Moving ahead several years, "Kat's Promise" is for ages twelve and up. It's a poetically written story about Kat, a young girl whose mother's death forces her to live with a frigid and emotionally disturbed aunt.
Kat's sickly yet joyous mother was the antithesis of the evil aunt, and contrasts are frequently made between the two women's choices in reacting to life's hurdles.
As Kat says, her mother "only had to take a baby step to find pure joy in the littlest thing." Her aunt Paulina spends most of her time basting in the juices of jealousy and resentment over the fact that her sister married the man she had wanted to marry.
"Death leaves a haunting list etched on your heart -- things you meant to say or forgot or just didn't find the time for," Kat philosophizes.
Though dealing with losing her mother, Kat seems to be more of an adult than any of the other characters in the book.
Her aunt drinks heavily and throws tantrums when she doesn't get her way, the housekeeper is so meek that she allows herself to be treated like leftover hash browns, and the only friend Kat has lives in a doubly dysfunctional family and makes poor choices with her boyfriend.
Kat's grief shows in her thoughts, which are fiercely told in first person.
You grieve with her, then, when her aunt's new boyfriend tries to molest her, she learns that her mother had to marry her father because she was pregnant, and the meek housekeeper turns out to be the grandmother she'd never met.
Author Bonnie Shimko gives real definition to the word "poignant" with her writing. It's a rich, figuratively full tale, but not for the younger crowd. The material is heavy enough to leave more than a little emotional heartburn.
Confessions from the Principal's Chair
By Anna Myers
Walker and Company, 2006, $16.95
On the lighter side of literature, try "Confessions from the Principal's Chair"by Anna Myers. This is a funny, quirky, creative story about an eighth-grader who is mistaken for the substitute principal when she moves to a new school in a small town.
Myers does a superb job of weaving details together to make the story believable. The main character, nicknamed "Bird" because of her first name, Robin, had been trained as a professional actress, so when she sees the opportunity to play her greatest role ever, she moves right in as "Principal Miller."
She manages to fool everyone for two days, during which she not only makes lots of long-distance phone calls to her old friends in Denver, but also manages to plan a water balloon fight for the entire school. Most importantly, Bird is able to see bullying through the eyes of a girl being teased at the school, and she works whole heartedly to come up with a solution to the harassment.
This story is also told in first person, and the writer's voice is so casual and "teenagery" that you almost forget the author is an adult. The story is refreshingly clean and upbeat, and should be a stress-free read for the middle school or upper elementary student.
The only disappointment to the book is that there were several typos, and there's a mix-up on a line about segregation, which should have probably read "desegregation." It's hard to complain too much, though; it's a delightful story.
Charlene Vermeulen is a former Moore County Schools teacher who now homeschools her children.
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