Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Oh To Be Not Seen, Never Heard

Navigating through your middle school years is a bit like motoring a boat down a stump-filled river in the dead of a moonless night.  You are never really sure whether you are going to feel a huge bump accompanied by a scraping sound.  If this should happen your heart races hoping it's only a tiny nick not a large scratch or even worse, a hole.  With a lot of luck and your learned skills you might make it all the way to your dock smoothly and safely.

It truly isn't easy being twelve years old.  If you could somehow fast forward to twenty or even ten years ahead, watching and shadowing yourself living day to day at twelve, you might be able to return viewing your considerable trials with a more open outlook.  Unfortunately this does not happen but with a gifted author, we can follow another twelve year old, laughing like a loon remembering.  How To Outrun A Crocodile When Your Shoes Are Untied (Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, June 3, 2014) written by Jess Keating will have you smiling so much your face will hurt (in a good way).

This book contains real-life situations and stuff that has actually happened to me.  I'm talking lots of awful boy behavior, wretched girls, best friends who are missing in action, and ridiculous amounts of elephant poop. ...
---Ana Wright, Anonymite Extraordinaire

These two sentences are part of an opening introduction by the main character.  Readers will immediately realize they are about to enter a life filled with hilarious situations.  This is followed by a first chapter with Ana holding the tail end of a crocodile before rushing off to video chat online with her best friend; a friend who has moved to New Zealand from Denver where Ana still lives.

By chapter two we've become acquainted with the boy-next-locker, Zack, star of the tennis courts and Ana's current crush, Ashley, leader of the pack of The Sneerers, a trio of blatant bullies, Daz, Ana's prankster twin brother and his best friend, Kevin, all-around nice guy and genius at everything.  During dinner that evening Ana's already challenging life takes another interesting turn.  The meal, with her two zoologist parents, both who work in the zoo, is interrupted with considerable fanfare as her celebrity (maternal) grandfather and his current actress girlfriend arrive.

It seems Shep Foster is making a documentary about his life which will include television appearances by his daughter, son-in-law and their children.  He is also going to fund a project of his daughter's involving large carnivores at the zoo.  As far as Ana is concerned this has disaster, in a huge way, written all over it.  She is desperate that no one at school realizes: (1) who her grandfather is or (2) her family is moving to live inside the zoo.

Life being what it is, Ana's wishes become attached to a series of incidents even she cannot have predicted.  Amid time with a nine-foot-long crocodile named Louis, posted flyers, a catastrophic lunch hour, shrieking overnight visitors at the zoo, and a reptile exhibition, Ana seeks her brave, true self.  Family, friends and a tiny seedling lend a hand.

First and foremost author Jess Keating has crafted a top-notch middle grade novel speaking directly to the hearts of her readers.  With abundant use of humor in first person voice, we actively join in sharing Ana's last few days of school before summer.  Descriptions of characters, backdrop and situations are realistic not only in Ana's world but easily identifiable as possible in any twelve-year-old's day to day existence.

What sets this book apart from others are several writing skills, working wonderfully with the overall setting.  Ana identifies people in her life by creating a Creature File card which includes species name, kingdom, phylum, weight, natural habitat, feeds on, life span, handling technique and other important notes.  Her insights will cause smiles and head-nodding.  She also ends events and chapters with lists; Growing List of Things I Will Never Understand about Boys, Things I Would Do If It Meant I Could Sleep until College or Five Places to Live, Now That My Fate Is Sealed.  Most chapters begin with an Animal Wisdom fact followed by a comment from Anna looking like a note in a scrapbook taped to the page.  Here are a few sample passages.

"All porcupines float in water."
---Animal Wisdom

How could they even find this out?  Is someone out there dunking porcupines in water?

"I beg your pardon, young man?" Grandpa sputtered.  "You don't see me for years and now all of a sudden you're 'Hey, Grandpa-ing' me?  I don't think so!" Grandpa shoved out of his chair, and to Daz's horror, snatched him right up from his chair into a totally nonmanly hug.  He ruffled his hair under his fist and laughed.  "That's much better.  Good to see you, son." He let Daz go and chuckled at the state of his hair.  Now he looked like he'd been electrocuted.
That'll teach him.
"DAZ IS A PAIN!" Darwin nattered, shimmying on his perch as he watched us eat.  I choked on a mouthful of spaghetti, trying not to laugh.  I'd taught him that little gem in less than a week.

Sometimes, it feels like life should stop until you feel better.  You know, like when bad things happen and you have a moment of silence over the PA system at school or something.  Life should do that for you when you become camel poop girl and your best friend meets a girl named Leilani and your grandpa is parading around the news like a rockstar.  

How To Outrun A Crocodile When Your Shoes Are Untied by Jess Keating is one of those lighthearted, funny books which strike serious chords in our souls.  She speaks to the twelve-year-old in all of us. (Where was this book when I was twelve?)  Every time I read this title, I place more post-it notes on pages.  Words like uplifting, hopeful, hilarious, heartwarming and truthful aptly describe Ana and her story.  This is definitely one of my favorite middle grade novels of 2014.  I consider it a must read, recommending you purchase more than one copy for your classroom or library.  The best part is yet to come.  A sequel titled How To Outswim A Shark Without A Snorkel: Book 2 in the My Life is a Zoo series will be here in January 2015.  An excerpt is included at the back of this book. So what are you waiting for?  Grab your safari hat and get reading!

To learn more about Jess Keating visit her website by following the link embedded in her name.  Here is a link to a special A Thank You post she wrote.  Links here, here, here, and here are a few of the posts on her blog tour providing readers with more information about Jess Keating and the writing of this book.  Colby Sharp provides readers with one of his Ten Minute Review posts at sharpread along with a 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 Interview.  Here is a link to Jess Keating's post at the Nerdy Book Club, On Borrowed Bravery, And The Books That Change Us. Here is a link to an activity kit.

Enjoy a couple of Jess Keating's tweets below.  She is a very positive, active member of the Twitter reading and literacy community.

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